“Come on United, do it for Manchester.’’
One of the most evocative banners unfurled during the Manchester United-Ajax final in the Europa League on Thursday said it all.
United, inspired by that emotional encouragement, did just that, beating Ajax 2-0 to win the tournament for the first time in their fabled history at the Friends Arena in Stockholm.
For all the glory that came along with the victory, it was still tinged by Monday’s bomb attack during an Arian Grande concert in the city that claimed the lives of 22 people, most of them youngsters, and wounded 59.
Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan knocked in the goals that sealed the win and handed United a ticket to the Champions League next season.
Moreover, that win somehow eased the pain following the tragic event that rocked the vibrant city after a suicide bomber ruined what has been a joyous concert by the renowned American pop idol/actress who made wonders via her smash hits like Problem, Break Free, Bang Bang, Focus, The Way and One Last Time, among others.
A minute’s silence to honour those who perished and still recuperating was observed before kick-off in front of a loud but respectful crowd.
And before the match started, United boss Jose Mourinho, who last won the Europa League in 2003, motivated his players to forget the tragedy back home and stay focused on the game.
They heeded that and then it was time to work for the Red Devils.
Pogba struck after 18 minutes as he received a Marouanne Fellaini assist on the edge of the area then fired a left-foot shot that deflected off Davinson Sanchez and looped beyond Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana.
In the 48th, Daley Blind’s corner was headed down by Chris Smalling, and Mkhitaryan hooked the ball into the roof of the net to atone for what has been an awful show of his in the first half.
Ajax, playing in their first European final since bowing to Juventus in the Champions League in 1996, tried to stay in the game but it was not their night for the football gods somehow intervened to allow United to notch a much-needed triumph.
Captain Wayne Rooney was fielded in late in what could be his last match for the club as United went on to gift Mourinho a trophy in his first term as manager and more significantly gave their fans back home comfort in their time of grief.
It could have been a totally joyous success for United, who also won the League Cup this season, but that cowardly act in the concert as Ajax boss Peter Bosz said “took the sparkle’’ away.
In the final reckoning, we can say that the most precious prize United got was not taking home the trophy nor gaining Champions League qualification.
The win strongly showed that the spirit of the people of Manchester cannot be broken by any form of terror or violence.
For United, their fans and Manchester as a whole, it was a victory of defiance.