For Manch­ester United, it’s all on the line

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

Los­ing the Europa League fi­nal is a prospect that doesn’t bear think­ing about at Manch­ester United.

Not for the play­ers, who would face an­other sea­son out of the pres­ti­gious Cham­pi­ons League — the bonus prize for win­ning Europe’s sec­ond-tier com­pe­ti­tion — not to men­tion the pain of de­feat in a high­pro­file ti­tle match.

Not for the club’s own­ers, who would be hit with a big re­duc­tion in spon­sor­ship money and, po­ten­tially, prize money from Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion next sea­son.

And not for its fa­mous man­ager, whose first year at United would be widely viewed as a fail­ure.

“This game,” United striker Mar­cus Rash­ford said, “is our sea­son.”

So much hinges on the match against Ajax in Stock­holm on Wed­nes­day that United’s play­ers and their man­ager, Jose Mour­inho, have to be feel­ing the pres­sure head­ing to the Swedish cap­i­tal.

United even gave up on its Premier League cam­paign with a few weeks re­main­ing to give its full fo­cus to the Europa League.

For Eng­land’s big­gest club, it’s time to de­liver.

In a year of highs and lows un­der Mour­inho, United has won the League Cup to claim a tro­phy for the sec­ond straight sea­son but fin­ished in a dis­ap­point­ing sixth place in the Premier League.

Miss­ing a top-four fin­ish — for the third time in four years — meant United failed to earn a qual­i­fi­ca­tion spot for next sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League, the min­i­mum re­quire­ment for Mour­inho and the club’s Amer­i­can own­ers.

The only way to achieve that now is by win­ning the Europa League, which has be­come a more at­trac­tive com­pe­ti­tion since 2015 when the rules changed to of­fer the win­ner an au­to­matic spot in the group stage of the Cham­pi­ons League.

And that’s where United, a 20time English cham­pion and three­time win­ner of the Euro­pean Cup, feels it be­longs: on the game’s big­gest stage. Not slum­ming it with the con­ti­nent’s also-rans in the Europa League.

Mour­inho was hired last year to bring im­me­di­ate suc­cess to United. For all his per­ceived down­sides — a cau­tious, prag­matic style on the field and a con­fronta­tional, fight­pick­ing ap­proach off it — he has been a rapid hoarder of tro­phies through­out his coach­ing ca­reer.

Two cups and Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion would amount to a suc­cess­ful first sea­son at United.

One tro­phy and no Cham­pi­ons League would be a huge let­down.

“It makes sense to say it,” Mour­inho said, when this point of view was put to him, “but I don’t feel like that. I don’t want the play­ers to feel like that. I don’t think the board feels like that.”

That’s be­cause, in Mour­inho’s opin­ion, United has made progress this sea­son, re­cov­er­ing some of its aura of old, only for a mix­ture of in­juries and a gru­elling sched­ule to set the team back. The last two months have been hard go­ing, with a game ev­ery three or four days as a con­se­quence of United go­ing deep in ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion it en­tered.

The game against Ajax will be United’s 64th of the sea­son.

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