Man United's long Europa League run will end with a make-or-break final
The Europa League isn't the European Cup and Manchester United's performance in the semifinal second leg was weak and the result was fortunate, but Jose Mourinho's side are nonetheless going to Sweden to play Ajax in final on May 24. And that's what United fans are talking about today.
It's the club's seventh European final and the first in the UEFA Cup / Europa League, which is the only trophy the club have yet to win. It's a huge game. Win it and Mourinho can call this season a success, having lifted three of the five trophies for which United competed. Lose it and it will be considered a failure of a campaign, assuming United fail to finish in the Premier League's top four.
United were nervy on Thursday night, especially when former Manchester City and current Celta Vigo cult hero John Guidetti missed a 96th-minute chance to win the tie, but was it any surprise that the game ended 1-1, given the number of draws at Old Trafford this season?
The truth is that this is what happens when a team is far from vintage and United have been England's sixth-best for most of this season. They would have been battered by better sides in the Champions League, so Europe's second club competition has been a better fit. The road to Sweden has been long and tight and unconvincing at times, but most fans couldn't care less now their team is there.
Mourinho's men had won all six of their previous home games in the competition, though not without wobbles. After defeat at Feyenoord in their opening group-stage game, it needed a 69th-minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal to beat Zorya Luhansk. It took Juan Mata's strike in the 70th minute to see off Rostov in the Round of 16, while Marcus Rashford's quarterfinal second-leg decider against Anderlecht came in the second period of extra time.
Whatever happens at the Friends Arena, Mourinho will surely make United stronger and the team will surely improve -- not that Louis van Gaal's did in his second season -- but progress can be accelerated by playing Champions League football. (Europa League victory would also set up a UEFA Super Cup match against Real Madrid or Juventus in Macedonia on Aug. 8.)
Failure to reach the Champions League will have significant financial implications on the club. The kit deal with adidas would be £22.5 million less next season, enough to pay the wages of two top-earning players. Worse, it would make United less attractive to the stellar talent they're trying to entice from superior teams. They can offer more money, a great club and point to a more optimistic future, but have been doing that for the last four years without success.
And, besides, surely the glory in football lies in lifting a cup on a great European night in a fine foreign city before thousands of your own fans? The final will be the principal conversation among the 2,800 travelling Reds at Tottenham on Sunday, with the line "What you doin' for Stockholm?" commonplace.
There will be satisfied responses from those who booked early -- one got return flights from the UK for £62 in January -- to those who are paying around £500 for day trips from Manchester... without the guarantee of a match ticket.
Others applied in UEFA's open ballot and those who took their chance have been rewarded thanks to the head of Marouane Fellaini and the boots of Marcus Rashford. Having made his name in the Europa League last season, the teenage Mancunian striker has either scored or set up United's last four goals in the competition.
Though long scorned by United fans, the Europa League has not been without its plus points. Vigo in the sun was a delight, while the atmosphere in St Etienne was the best at a United game for years, just as fans of the French club were the loudest to visit Old Trafford for an age.
Mourinho was right to pick up this week on the less than spectacular atmosphere at United's home. Many a ground boasts a far better atmosphere than the Theatre of Dreams -- and any other major English stadium, for that matter -- and we've seen that this season in the Europa League.
It was a delight to watch football in the febrile arenas of Feyenoord and Fenerbahce but, while trips to Rostov and Odessa were less appealing, they were enjoyed by those who travelled. They'll be at the final, too, with tickets that cost between €45 and €150.
Most of United's 9,500 seats in the South End of a stadium, in which David Moyes' side played a preseason friendly in August 2013, will cost €70 and €100. Supporters will be fortunate to get hotel accommodation for a similar price.
It's a small allocation for a venue that seats 50,000 and UEFA's ticket distribution policy is reminiscent of old FA Cup finals, when competing teams would each receive only 25 percent of the total capacity, meaning thousands of fans who watch their teams every week missed out.
The ballot for the tickets is next Wednesday and so timing is tight to arrange travel, as it has been for much of the competition. But United keep plodding through a competition that requires at least 15 games to win, doing just enough to stay on the right side of the line between success and failure.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.