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Haunting Quotes

“I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me. I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition.” These were the words of Jose Mourinho as he began his second spell as Chelsea manager in 2013. United’s Champions League qualification now hinges on Wednesday’s game

Different clubs, and different circumstances, but the same manager in May 2017 faces a Europa League final that will determine his first season at Manchester United.

With a youthful Ajax side waiting in Stockholm on Wednesday night, Manchester United are aiming to fill the one remaining void in their expansive trophy cabinet.

This season has been a disappointment for the club. That disappointment will be so much clearer should they fail to win on Wednesday.

What if the worst happens?

The closing weeks of the Premier League season have been entirely focused on this final for Manchester United. Mourinho has been typically outspoken about his frustrations at the fixture list, making it clear that he thought they were a waste of time. Fans had paid for those fixtures, however, and open irritation at the league matches only adds to the immense pressure on the trip to Sweden.

A fortuitous run of opponents in the Europa League for Manchester United makes it easy to underestimate Ajax. A team whose senior figure is 24-years-old can simply be thought of as naïve and beatable. Their first leg destruction of Lyon and victory over Schalke should serve as a warning for a Manchester United team now out of the rhythm of competitive matches.

Should the iconic Dutch club come out victorious this week, Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford will be deemed a failure. Champions League qualification was the bare minimum this campaign, though a title challenge was expected after the summer spending. Having finished sixth and been eliminated from the FA Cup, lifting a trophy which Mourinho has little respect for is all that can save 2016/17 for Manchester United.

It’s a bizarre situation. Yet it’s one that is hardly surprising.

Another year beginning in the Europa League will jeopardise transfer activity for the club this summer. Deals may be edging towards completion in some quarters, but that could all change should Wednesday go wrong. Manchester United’s status as one of Europe’s best has vanished since Alex Ferguson’s retirement and failure in this one-off, winner-takes-all would just be the conclusion to another woeful chapter in the club’s recent history.

Pursuits of players would immediately become trickier, despite the club’s stature and riches on offer. Mourinho’s once undoubtable brilliance would take its hardest of knocks yet.

Defeat is not an option. Manchester United’s next 12 months are hanging on the outcome of one match, which serves as a reminder of the club’s shortcomings this season.

It might all be rosy for Mourinho

What Mourinho is relying on however, is that, of course, Manchester United are strong favourites. Even without the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their squad should be able to dispatch an albeit talented Ajax side. Mourinho is/was the master of finding a way to win when he needs it most and he has a deep, experienced squad to utilise.

Injuries are a frustration for the 20-time English champions – as Mourinho will happily recollect – but, their great investment compared to their opponents makes it nothing more than a shallow excuse. Money does not equal success, though it does naturally increase expectation.

A victorious night in Scandinavia would enable Manchester United to shunt this underwhelming season into the dustiest cupboard of their memories. Champions League qualification and a trophy-lifting end to an arduous 12 months would be the perfect springboard for the club to return to where they feel they belong.

The proposed spending can kick-off with the promise of Champions League action at Old Trafford once again and Mourinho will have a much-needed ego boost with his decision justified. Everything about the club would be on the up; the ugly results and stagnant performances would be nothing more than a minor speckle on a season that ultimately ticked boxes, even though it never captured the imagination.

Telling Conclusions – CL qualification or not

Whatever the outcome on Wednesday, the fact it has got to such a point of desperation does not leave Mourinho in a positive light.

A long unbeaten run could not force a realistic top four push, while several squad members will be wondering if they have a future at the club. Through a season of disjointed performances and questionable Mourinho decisions, Manchester United are a sending off or an officiating mistake away from a disappointment.

The risk is high. A final victory will paper over the numerous disappointments of this year, yet defeat would leave Mourinho needing to crank up his PR machine again. This entire season has been a masterclass in adjusting expectation from Mourinho, but falling short this time would be too much for even him to save face.

Winning the Europa League, EFL Cup and qualifying for the Champions League would be a passable season. Winning the EFL Cup and finishing sixth would be a disaster.

It is not just Mourinho’s ego riding on this, though, and a summer of spending north of £150 million again could be markedly different if Ajax lift Europe’s secondary cup competition.

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