Special for the Armenian Weekly
Manchester United and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were crowned Europa League Champions at the Friends Arena in Stockholm on May 24. With that title, United earn a berth in next season’s Champion’s League. Paul Pogba’s deflected first half effort set United on the road to victory and Henrikh Mkhitaryan made the outcome safe with an instinctive and opportunistic strike just after the break.
The match was a typical Mourinho final. In politics they say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. There was nothing poetic about this final, a fact that was not lost on the United Manager in his post-match comments.
“There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many titles. We knew where they were better than us. We knew where we were better than them. We tried to kill their good qualities, we tried to explore their weaknesses.”
That is typical of a manager who has made a career of stopping his opponents from doing what they are good at, as opposed to focusing on what his own team can produce. Although, not very poetic, and not very “United-like,” it is hard to argue with tonight’s result and with the manager’s overall record.
The Special One maintains his 100% winning record against Ajax, winning all seven matches against the Dutch side. Mourinho becomes the first manager to win both the UEFA Cup/Europa League and Champions League on two occasions. He has won all four of his European finals as a manager, winning the 2003 UEFA Cup and 2004 Champions League with Porto, as well as the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan to add to this latest triumph with United. In his first season as United manager, he has won two major trophies (EFL Cup and Europa League) along with the Community Shield and now that Champion’s League berth that is so coveted in the modern game.
Mourinho described this season as his most difficult as a manager, but his team has come through with success, arguably ahead of schedule. The team’s achievements and results can now provide a platform for Manchester United and Mourinho to attract the world’s finest footballers in the transfer market, to continue building in an attempt to reclaim the success and dominance of the Alex Ferguson era.
United’s tactics were first and foremost to stifle any attacking threat posed by the young and exciting Ajax team, a team that became the youngest to start a major European final with an average age of just under 23 years. Manchester United’s Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini brought a physicality and intensity to midfield that Ajax were unable to match. Although the Dutch side enjoyed 69% possession in the match and managed 17 shots at goal, a mere three hit the target. A lack of width and a tendency to overplay the ball resulted in congested and inept passages of play in the attacking third for Ajax and that played right into United’s hands. Once the lead was secured through Pogba, Mourinho “parked the bus” on the way to a comfortable victory. At 1-0 to the good, United always looked safe, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s delightful finish from a second half corner put the result beyond doubt.
The magisterial Armenian talisman has enjoyed unbelievable success in recent European matches. Five of his last six United goals have come in this Europa League competition, with most of them scored away from Old Trafford. That scoring run sets Mkhitaryan apart in the annals of United history, being the only player to score in five away European fixtures in a single campaign. The rich vein of form Mkhitaryan enjoyed did not go unnoticed by his team mates, who suggested he would get on the scoresheet in the final in the lead up to the big match.
In a post-match interview, with the tricolor draped over his shoulders, Mkhitaryan expressed his delight, but as always remained humble by giving credit to the players around him. “Every day I was dreaming to score in the final, and I did thanks to my team mates, I am very happy today. I am very excited.”
What a journey it has been for Mkhitaryan. At the beginning of the season he fell out of favor with the manager and was publically criticized in the media by Mourinho. It was, in-fact a Europa league match at Old Trafford versus Fenerbahce on Oct. 20 where Mkhitaryan was given a second chance to recapture the form that proved elusive at the start of the season. Mkhitaryan was electric on the night, pulling the strings in midfield and displaying a true ability to orchestrate United’s attack. Although there were no goals for the Armenian in that match, that performance was rewarded with a “Man of the Match” award. His scoring touch would soon develop, particularly in Europe, with vital away goals against Zorya Luhansk, Saint Etienne, Rostov, and Anderlecht. These goals continued to reestablish his profile as a big-time United player and a player that Mourinho would grow to trust and rely upon.
This terrific European run, on which United’s Champion’s League fate hinged, proved to be a gamble that paid dividends for Mourinho. Paul Pogba began to repay his enormous transfer fee with the opening goal in the final, and with his strike, Mkhitaryan showcased what he is all about.
When the ball broke to him from Chris Smalling’s header, with his back to goal Mkhitaryan showed great inventiveness and imagination to flick the ball goal wards with the outside of his boot. As the ball hit the net, the normally understated Mkhitaryan spun away in delight, joy etched across his face and arms outstretched. As if people didn’t know already, that goal made an emphatic statement.
There was an Armo in the building, the great Henrikh Mkhitaryan!