The Europa League is a largely secondary competition, one that clutters schedules, forces squad rotation and features the most unusual of club meetings on the European stage. It’s one managers don’t always treat with their utmost sincerity and respect and one that many use to work in younger faces with an eye on the bigger picture.
But for Manchester United, Wednesday’s Europa League final is everything.
The Champions League place that comes with the Europa League trophy is no secret, and it’s one the Red Devils covet. Jose Mourinho’s task as manager is to restore the club to its title-winning days of Sir Alex Ferguson, bringing it back into the limelight both home and internationally.
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One could argue that the club has had little problem wooing top talent since Ferguson left, with Paul Pogba knowingly leaving perennial Serie A favorite and Champions League contender Juventus for the record payday, but lack of Champions League play, that Manchester United provided. But that move was surely made with the long view–that in no time, Man United would reassert its authority and reclaim glory. Another year of the absence of a proof of product won’t serve the club well, especially not when North West rivals Manchester City and Liverpool have already made strides to return to the Champions League next season, bringing with it the financial windfall and competition clout needed to lure its desired transfer targets.
Antoine Griezmann, for instance, can essentially name his next destination. The 26-year-old Frenchman and 2016 Ballon d’Or third-place finisher has long been mooted as a United transfer target, where he’d join countrymen Pogba and Anthony Martial. This week, he bluntly put his chances of moving from Atletico Madrid to Manchester United at a six out of 10. Money is not an issue, and neither is the preference on both sides. So what’s the presumed hold-up from upping those odds? The lack of Champions League play certainly plays a large factor, especially with Atletico’s current status.
What will one more year of simply fighting for top-four positioning do for the club and its aspirations and pursuits? Another year in the Europa League, while it does offer a second path to the Champions League, is surely not going to please Mourinho, given the ire that the club’s 2017 schedule congestion has drawn. A triumph, however, returns the club on the fast track to having its pick of the litter in the transfer market, with no conditions or catches and makes Manchester United a desired destination once again, not just one that could potentially turn into one.
Mourinho, in his hyperbolic fashion, referred to the Europa League semifinal second leg against Celta Vigo the most important game in the club’s history. And while that is obviously not true, given its past Premier League title and Champions League title success, it may be the most important game regarding the club’s future. Manchester United is playing for a European trophy Wednesday in Stockholm–but most importantly, it’s playing for what is supposed to come next.