STOCKHOLM — It was relief in the end. Relief, then joy and an outbreak of emotion from Jose Mourinho that emphasised just what it means to him and Manchester United to have won the Europa League.
It has been a traumatic week for Manchester and, by definition, United in the wake of the terror attacks in the city on Monday that shocked the world and placed this game, against Ajax in Stockholm, under the microscope for so many reasons beyond football and the prize at stake.
Football did not matter on Monday, or Tuesday, but eventually, the focus inevitably switches back to sport as a release and a vehicle to display defiance and unity. It means everything and nothing at the same time, but after a terrible 48 hours for the city, Mourinho’s United have at least given Manchester something to smile about when it wakes up in the morning.
And when it comes it football, which is the only thing Mourinho can be judged on when some kind of normality returns, this 2-0 victory against Ajax in the Friends Arena, with goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, ensured a joyous, successful end to his first campaign as manager at United.
His end-of-year report now reads 8 out of 10, with Mourinho having delivered beyond expectations by winning two major trophies and claiming a passport back into the Champions League.
“Now I am on holiday,” a drained Mourinho said after the game. “I don’t want to see any international friendlies. I am selfish. I can’t do it.
“For me, enough is enough. It has been a very hard last few months, but three trophies in one season and the Champions League. I am very happy in my most difficult season as a manager.”
Jose Mourinho Full Press Conference After Win The Europa League
The Portuguese has reacted to winning major finals with a blank face in the past, shrugging his shoulders and leaving the celebrations to the players and the supporters, but there was no hiding his emotions on this occasion.
He identified his son, Jose Jr., in the crowd behind the dugout, waved three fingers — signifying the Community Shield, EFL Cup and Europa League successes — and then summoned him on the pitch before rolling around on the turf together.
Mourinho punched the air, patted his chest and hugged each of his players and backroom staff. He knew exactly what the win meant: It was hugely important for the upward trajectory of his job at United and the challenge of restoring them to the top.
Defeat would have left heavy gray clouds hanging over the club — another season in the Europa League, more Thursday nights, the prospect of missing out on priority summer targets such as Antoine Griezmann, Romelu Lukaku and Andrea Belotti.
But the win changes the picture in an instant. It was Mourinho’s back to the future moment because his team made sure that, rather than face more doom and gloom next season, a switch has been flicked and the lights have been turned on for what should be a brighter future.
So what lies ahead now?
Well, the basics from the Europa League victory are simple. United will go straight into the group stages of the Champions League, seeded in pot two, just below the top group of domestic champions. Qualifying also ensures they do not suffer a £23 million penalty clause in their Adidas contract.
They will contest a glamorous UEFA Super Cup clash against Real Madrid or Juventus in Skopje, Macedonia, on Aug. 8, which gives Mourinho the chance to start the 2017-18 campaign with a trophy before a ball has even been kicked in anger.
And by the time they travel to Skopje, Mourinho will expect to have added at least one of his A-list targets to his squad.
“Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months,” he said. “So now it’s up to him and the owners. But I don’t care about football for now.”
Griezmann suggested the prospect of a move to United were “6 out of 10” earlier this week, but it is now probably closer to 8 out of 10 after this success.
United were already an attractive proposition to leading players, but now that they are back among the elite, having won a third major trophy in 12 months, they are also a club with a track record for winning, and that appeals to star names even more than the money on offer to play at Old Trafford.
World-class players will help accelerate Mourinho’s plan to put United back on top, but he also needs to add more finesse to his team’s play to make them champions.
Ajax were undone by United’s physical strength and direct approach in Stockholm, but a similar tactic will not work against Europe’s best. It will not worry Real, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus.
Better players will make it easier to play better football, though, so one should lead to another.
But in the end, despite all of the draws, the injuries and below-par performances, only Antonio Conte can claim to have done better than Mourinho and United this season. Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger would all love to be polishing the silverware that Mourinho has won.
“We preferred to reach the Champions League this way than finish fourth, third or second,” Mourinho said. “We got the objective. We are back in the Champions League by winning a title, an important title.
“The club now has every title in world football. We fought hard for this since the beginning.
“We always thought that we could win the Europa League, and we are very happy.
“There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win many titles.”