Man U re­sponds to pres­sure, ex­pec­ta­tions

WITH EUROPA LEAGUE TI­TLE

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

STOCKHOLM — Two tro­phies, qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the Cham­pi­ons League, and a re-es­tab­lish­ment of the club’s old aura and win­ning men­tal­ity.

Jose Mour­inho’s first sea­son at Manchester United can be deemed a suc­cess.

For all his spin, his at-times ques­tion­able man-man­age­ment and the cau­tious ap­proach of his team, Mour­inho is prov­ing to be the coach to whom United re­ally should have turned af­ter the re­tire­ment of Alex Fer­gu­son in 2013.

The tenures of David Moyes (10 months) and Louis van Gaal (two years) set United back, and are blots in its il­lus­tri­ous re­cent his­tory. Eng­land’s big­gest club looks to be in the right hands now.

Win­ning the Europa League — cour­tesy of a 2-0 vic­tory over Ajax in Stockholm on Wed­nes­day — was a game-changer for United and Mour­inho. It se­cured an au­to­matic spot in next sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League group stage, mean­ing United are back with the big boys of Euro­pean soc­cer.

Where United should be, given its his­tory, pres­tige, and wealth.

“For me, it’s the most im­por­tant tro­phy of my ca­reer,” said Mour­inho, who is never shy of hy­per­bole.

Mour­inho said he was look­ing for­ward to tak­ing a break from the game af­ter a tax­ing last few months of the sea­son, capped by play­ing the Europa League fi­nal in the wake of the bomb at­tack at a con­cert in Manchester that killed 22 peo­ple.

Yet, in the back of his mind, he will surely be plot­ting foren­si­cally for next sea­son.

His shop­ping list of po­ten­tial sign­ings is al­ready in the hands of United vice chairman Ed Wood­ward, with Atletico Madrid for­ward Antoine Griez­mann likely at the top of it.

“Now it’s up to him and the own­ers,” Mour­inho said.

United has splashed out more than $500 mil­lion on sign­ings in the trans­fer mar­ket in the past three off-sea­sons. An­other sum­mer of heavy spend­ing is likely.

But the pres­sure is on Mour­inho to get the right play­ers in, be­cause fans might not be so tol­er­ant of his prag­matic and of­ten-de­fen­sive style the longer his reign goes on. At some stage, Mour­inho needs to take the hand­brake off and al­low his team of stars to ex­press them­selves more.

United scored one goal in away matches against other mem­bers of the Pre­mier League’s top six this sea­son. In each of those games, the team lined up de­fen­sively, seem­ingly happy to leave with a 0-0 draw or to nick a goal on the break. That will have to change. Mour­inho has other chal­lenges. What does he do with Wayne Rooney, United’s cap­tain and record scorer whose best days are be­hind him?

Will goal­keeper David De Gea, pos­si­bly United’s best player over the past three years, be sold to Real Madrid?

Does United look to keep Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic, who is set to be un­avail­able for at least half of next sea­son with a knee in­jury? Ibrahi­movic will be out of con­tract in a few weeks.

Other ar­eas that need strength­en­ing are left back, cen­tral mid­field, and po­ten­tially cen­tre back.

Still, th­ese are ex­cit­ing times for United.

And, af­ter fin­ish­ing a dis­ap­point­ing sixth place in the Pre­mier League, the team should be a gen­uine ti­tle chal­lenger for the first time since Fer­gu­son left United as English cham­pion in 2013.

Un­der Mour­inho, Manchester United should be feared once again.

“We per­formed like a big club, a big team,” United mid­fielder An­der Her­rera said af­ter the Europa League fi­nal, sound­ing ev­ery inch a fu­ture cap­tain of the team.

“Very se­ri­ous and very smart,” he said.

And that’s United un­der Mour­inho. “In a bad sea­son, in a sea­son where some­times I felt that my team was the worst team in the world, where I felt some­times I was the worst man­ager in the world, we man­age to win three tro­phies,” Mour­inho said, re­fer­ring to the Europa League, the League Cup, and the Com­mu­nity Shield.

“It is the end of a very dif­fi­cult sea­son,” he added. “But a very, very good sea­son.”

MICHAEL SOHN, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney lifts the tro­phy af­ter win­ning the Europa League fi­nal Wed­nes­day.

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