Man United, Jose Mourinho will surely focus everything on Europa League
MANCHESTER, England -- Manchester United have missed plenty of chances this season. Wastefulness is the one thing they have been consistent at under Jose Mourinho, but following a campaign of frustration and unfulfilled promise, they now have one final chance to erase all that has gone before and make it a year to remember.
Languishing in sixth position in the Premier League, needing a miracle to secure Champions League qualification via a top-four finish, United will travel to Stockholm to face Ajax in the Europa League final May 24 after squeezing past Celta Vigo with a 2-1 aggregate semifinal victory.
If they overcome Ajax in the Friends Arena, United will not only claim the only major trophy they have never won, but also secure the more prestigious prize of a ticket directly into the group stage of next season's Champions League.
So it's a case of heaven or hell for United, and there can be no shades of gray against the Dutch giants. It's been a long slog to make it to Sweden -- fourteen games, including draining journeys to Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, and a dramatic escape from last-minute elimination against Celta, with former Manchester City forward John Guidetti missing a golden chance from six yards to win the tie with the final kick of the game.
The marathon run has undoubtedly affected their form in the Premier League, which has led to United's lowly position, and the quarterfinal victory over Anderlecht ended with Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both sustaining season-ending cruciate ligament injuries.
The Europa League has also clearly left United battered and bruised, but all their scars will heal if they triumph on May 24 and win the club's fifth major European trophy.
The season comes down to 90 minutes in Sweden, and Jose Mourinho will now focus solely on getting his team perfectly prepared for the occasion. Losing Eric Bailly to suspension is another blow the United manager must overcome, with the centre-half dismissed by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan for hitting out at Guidetti late in the second-half, but Mourinho at least has three centre-halves to choose from now that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have returned to fitness. One of them will partner Daley Blind against his former club.
With three Premier League games still to play, Mourinho is now likely to abandon United's domestic commitments by fielding weakened teams against Tottenham, Southampton and Crystal Palace regardless of the consequences.
"Ajax will be difficult. They are a young team, strong team, and they finish the league this weekend and will have 12 days to recover," Mourinho said. "We have three matches in that time. We have 12 days to prepare for a final, with 15 or 16 players.
"Bailly was probably naive. We now lose a very important player for the final, and we don't have many. But I just feel sorry that my boys must go to the final and then go to the national team the next day. They should go to a spa after their games this season."
Having made wholesale changes to his team at Arsenal at the weekend, which saw United's 25-game league unbeaten run ended by the hosts' 2-0 win, Mourinho is unlikely to alter his approach over the final week of the campaign. Marcus Rashford made his 50th appearance for United this season against Vigo, more than any of his teammates, so the teenager can expect to be rested over the final week. The same applies to Paul Pogba, who has racked up 49 appearances.
Ander Herrera is another crucial figure alongside Antonio Valencia, who could find himself wrapped in cotton wool between now and Stockholm, but Mourinho needs to give game time to Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney.
United still have a flickering hope of a top-four finish, especially if Manchester City and Liverpool drop points this weekend, but Mourinho is a pragmatist, and the two-time Champions League winner will see Stockholm as his team's best chance of Champions League qualification. Expect every selection decision to be made with Ajax in mind.
Ajax are bright and talented, but they concede goals -- they shipped seven against Lyon and Schalke in the semis and quarterfinals -- and have not won away from home in Europe for six games. They undoubtedly have the pedigree, but United have the experience and will go to Sweden as favourites.
However, after missing so many chances against Celta and throughout this season, Mourinho knows what United must do to beat Ajax.
"We were the best team in the first leg against Celta, but we never kill [opponents off]. We never score goals related to the chances we have," he said. "It was an open game at home, all the pressure on our side, and they were completely free of responsibility and gave us a very hard match.
"But after 14 matches, we are in the final. If we win the Europa League I am more than happy. It would be amazing."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_