Mourinho is determined to make this season a success by bringing home the one major trophy United have failed to win despite their successful history; The Europa League. Though many would expect Manchester United to be fighting among Europe’s elite, a Europa League win gives the Red Devils an all-important place in next years’ Champions League. Despite a shaky start in the group stages, the Reds have fought well through the latter stages of the competition, getting the job done come hell or high water.
In truth, it’s been a shaky season overall for United. Without any real commitment from a long-term manager, until Mourinho came along, the club have struggled to find any real identity. As ever, José’s focus is on a stout defence and pacey attacking football, though he is venturing into unchartered territory himself after stating that he wishes to “build a legacy” at Old Trafford. His methodical approach to building the team he desires only shows us that he is committed to the club far beyond his usual short-term contracts.
Mourinho’s first foray into the transfer market upon his arrival to the Manchester club saw him purchase Eric Bailly from Villareal for £30 million. The Ivorian came in somewhat under the radar for many United fans after his side finished fourth in La Liga, conceding just 35 goals over the season under the guidance of Marcelino.
Bailly has brought some stability to United’s defence which David de Gea has carried on his back for the past few seasons. Despite the move to a more physically demanding league, it took him little to no time to fit in, quickly becoming a mainstay in United’s backline and earning the trust of Mourinho and his coaching staff. Had injuries not disrupted his season, I truly believe United would have been in contention for a top-three finish.
A brief moment of naivety saw Bailly sent off against Celta Vigo on Thursday night in a scuffle which saw ex-Manchester City forward John Guidetti hit the floor after a push from the centre-back. A sending off which means he will miss United’s most important game of the season; the Europa League final. The Europa League may be United’s only chance of securing Champions League football this season, and now they must face the exciting Ajax without their best centre-back.
There is no doubt Bailly will be missed in defence, with his pace and ability to anticipate the game second to none when compared to his peers. Though it could not have come at a better time, if ever there was one; Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are back in the squad after facing spells out on the sidelines with nagging injuries.
I’ve long believed in the abilities of both Smalling and Jones, though both have proved to be inconsistent over the past season. Largely due to irregular playing time and the aforementioned injuries; the pair have struggled to keep up with the pace of the game when they have appeared, and they have been indecisive in their choices in key areas which has led to devastating errors. Though I’ve no doubt they will find their way through this poor run of form, I’d be surprised if they manage to find It before the 24th May.
Both, however, seem to be light years behind Eric Bailly. The 23-year old has captured the hearts of United fans across the globe simply because of his consistency and reliability in front of his own goal. There are very few defenders in the Premier League quite as raw as Bailly, who, given time to work on his technical ability, may well become a leading Premier League Centre-Back for the next decade.
With Bailly to miss the game and face a potential extension on his ban, he joins a unique group of key players who have missed out on a European Final for United; A group which contains (of course) Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, and Darren Fletcher.
Rojo and Shaw are also unavailable for the Final, and so Mourinho will have to adapt his defensive structure to protect an out-of-form Centre-Back pairing against a free-scoring Ajax attack with nothing to lose. Though not the trophy United fans have come to expect from their club, the Europa League gives the Red Devils a chance to prove themselves amongst Europe’s elite once again.