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The road to the UEFA Europa League final: Manchester United

On Wednesday 24th May 2017 at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, Ajax and Manchester United will go head to head to contest the UEFA Europa League trophy. Both teams have come a long way in the competition this season, doing what they needed to do in order to reach the final. It will be a contest between two great sides with an immense history of developing youth, winning titles, in both domestic and European competition. It will be a match where both Jose Mourinho and Peter Bosz will want to win, as will the players in both teams. It will be a match which could cost United massively as a place in the UEFA Champions League is needed to keep sponsorship revenue from adidas at they levels they currently stand at. Ajax have already reached the third qualifying round of the elite European competition next season, so losing the match will not be so costly to them, other than not lifting the trophy at the end of the match. This is a match both sets of supporters have been waiting around a fortnight for. This is how Ajax got to the final of the UEFA Europa League this season.

UEFA Europa League Group Stage

Manchester United qualified for the UEFA Europa League group stage by finishing fifth in the Premier League last season, also lifting the Emirates FA Cup, meaning the spot for that was handed to the sixth placed team in the league. United were drawn in a group with Dutch side Feyenoord, Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk, and Turkish side Fenerbahçe. In the opening group stage match, United face Feyenoord in Rotterdam, the stadium where they beat Barcelona in the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1991, but they lost 1-0 on this visit. Not a great start for United in Europe, a year to the day after Luke Shaw suffered a double fracture in the same country, that time in the Champions League. In the second match, United were playing at Old Trafford against Zorya Luhansk and needing to get a win on the record to get them started. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the only goal of the match, in the 69th minute. Getting the much-needed three points on offer. In the third match, United were pitted against Fenerbahçe at Old Trafford, this is where they pulled a great performance out of the bag, winning 4-1 with a brace from Paul Pogba (31′ penalty and 45+2′) Anthony Martial scored a penalty in the 34th minute, with Jesse Lingard completing the scoring in the 48th minute. Former United striker Robin van Persie scored a consolation goal in the 83rd minute of the match.

The fourth match was the reverse fixture of the third, United facing Fenerbahçe in Istanbul. It was a 2-1 defeat for United with Wayne Rooney scoring United’s only goal of the game in the 89th minute. Moussa Sow 2′ and Jeremain Lens 59; did enough to get three valuable points for the Turkish side. In the fifth match, United needed to get results in order to advance to the knockout stages, and that is exactly what they did. Feyenoord were up next at Old Trafford and United got their own back for the opening defeat at the start of the season, winning 4-0 with Rooney (35′), Juan Mata (69′), a Brad Jones own goal (75′) and a fourth from Lingard (90+2′) giving United all three points and needing a draw from their final match to advance. United travelled to the Ukraine to face Zorya Luhansk, where a 2-0 victory with goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan (48′) and Ibrahimovic (88′) ensured United advanced, coming second in the group with Fenerbahçe winning the group, a point ahead of United.

UEFA Europa League – Round of 32

United were drawn against Saint-Etienne in the round of 32, which was one of the easiest matches of that round. The first leg was played at Old Trafford with Ibrahimovic scoring his first hat-trick for United scoring in the 15th, 75th and a penalty in the 88th minute, putting United into a good position heading away from home a week later. In France, Mkhitaryan scored the only goal of the game in the 16th minute of the match, meaning United had won 4-0 on aggregate and were now tipped to win the competition, which is the only major honour United have not yet won as a club.

UEFA Europa League – Round of 16

In the round of 16, United were drawn against FC Rostov, the team which knocked Ajax out of the Champions League qualification, dropping out of the competition at the group stage themselves. The first leg was played on Rostov-on-Don, Russia with Mkhitaryan scoring the only goal of the game in the 35th minute of the match. Rostov did equalise in the 53rd minute of the match through Aleksandr Bukharov. The second leg at Old Trafford was one United would need to win. Juan Mata scored in the 70th minute of the match, which put United 2-1 up on aggregate, but a late goal could have sent the game into extra time if it was not for Sergio Romero making the save. United were through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League for the first time.

UEFA Europa League – Quarter-finals

Anderlecht were the team paired with United for this round, a young and exciting team taking storm in Belgium. United took the lead in the 36th minute of the match in Belgium, but Leander Dendoncker equalised in the 86th minute, meaning United had the away goal, but there was still a chance the Belgian side could claim a victory to the Theatre of Dreams. The second leg at Old Trafford saw Mkhitaryan open the scoring in the 10th minute of the match, putting United 2-1 up on aggregate, but Sofiane Hanni equalised in the 32nd minute of the match, 2-2 on aggregate with neither side able to make the breakthrough in the second half. Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered a serious knee injury in the last-minute of the half and Marcos Rojo has already been stretchered off midway through the first half. The match went into extra time and Marcus Rashford struck, putting United 3-2 up in the 107th minute with thirteen minutes left for the away side to level and take it to penalties. That came close with Anderlecht pressuring, but United persevering and making the semi-finals.

UEFA Europa League – Semi-finals

Spanish side Celta Vigo were United semi-final opposition, the team who faced Ajax in the group stages. The first leg was played at Balaídos in Spain with United earning the slimmest of 1-0 victories with Rashford finding the back of the net through a free-kick in the 67th minute of the match, shortly before limping off with an injury himself. United were able to keep a clean sheet and take the match to the second leg, at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dream was ready for the biggest match of the season, one which would suggest whether United could still play in the Champions League next season, or lumping all the eggs into one basket would be deemed as a failure. United took the lead through Marouane Fellaini in the 17th minute, scoring a header set up by Rashford, which put United into the driving seat, 2-0 up on aggregate. More goals were needed, or it would be a high-pressured semi-final second leg, which it was. Facundo Roncaglia scored an equaliser on the night in the 85th minute of the match, squeaky bum time. Eric Bailly and Roncaglia were both sent off after a fracas, not against each other and United would take the blow that was not Bailly in the final, should they make it. United held on, doing all they needed to do to reach Stockholm on the 24th May. United were there, winning 2-1 on aggregate in an ill-tempered affair at the Theatre of Dreams.

History

Manchester United are a successful team in both domestic and European competitions, also in international tournaments. United have won the Premier League (Division One) title 20 times, the most successful English club in the top-flight, last winning the league in the 2012/13 season which was the season we also saw legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retire. Add 12 FA Cup’s, the last during the 2015/16 season, and five EFL Cups (League Cup), the last during the current season, you see just how successful United have been – earning 37 major honours in domestic competition. United have also won the Champions League (European Cup) three times; 1968, 1999 and 2008, also reaching the final in 2009 and 2011, losing both to Barcelona. United lifted the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup in 1991, adding the UEFA Super Cup that same year, also appearing in the final in 1999 and 2008, losing both. The Red Devils also played in the EUSA (European/South America Cup in 1968, losing and winning it in 1999. Added to that is the glory of winning the FIFA Club World Cup in 2008, the first time an English club has won the competition with Liverpool 2005 and Chelsea 2012 both reaching the final and losing.

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