Europa League final about much more than the result for Manchester United
The Manchester United squad were understandably quiet yesterday as they walked onto the Friends Arena pitch, and it’s difficult to know how they couldn’t be, given that their last training session before tonight’s Europa League final began with a moment’s silence for the people of the city they represent.
It’s almost as difficult not to wonder how they now prepare for and play in a match like that, even if that is one of the most trivial and unimportant questions that could be asked in the wake of an event like the atrocity in Manchester Arena.
This is the peculiar and poignant context of this game now. Every single football-related issue from the build-up to the match or the rest of the season is now rendered irrelevant. It just doesn’t matter in anything like the same way; it feels so irrelevant.
Rather than the players thinking about their tactical instructions, ‘saving’ the 2016-17 season, who they’re marking, Champions League qualification, or anything like that, they were thinking about a truly dreadful event, and who they would have known affected by it.
That was something that immediately struck when, before training, local Wythenshawe lad Marcus Rashford posted a picture of the city's Piccadilly Gardens with a picture of a heart.
It emphasised the link between the team and town that is often forgotten outside a football world so often presumed to be hermetically sealed off, but also reflects a situation that is so unfair on the players and so hard for them.
They, and the Friends Arena in Stockholm, will become the focus for so much global grief; so much global sympathy. It is after all impossible to escape the highly relevant fact that what is arguably Manchester’s most famous product — this very football club — happen to be playing in a huge continental game less than 48 hours after such an atrocity in the city, even if the size of that game now feels so insignificant.
There’s no escaping the symbolism of that; the significance of that; the emotional weight of that.
It is a hugely difficult burden for them to carry. Wayne Rooney was one of a few players said to take the atrocity particularly badly.
It also provokes a difficult question, especially after the incident ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League quarter-final with Monaco earlier this season. Even if they were very different circumstances, they could well have brought similar reactions, and it would have been very understandable if — like some of the Dortmund squad — the United players did not want to play.
Sources close to the team say that was never really the case, and while it was “hard” for Jose Mourinho’s squad, they want to play.
It has also been mentioned how some are indeed using it as motivation to perform for the city, but how that in itself is mentally heavy for them.
It is just another difficulty for them, another complication on a day already so difficult. So many United players will be mentally determined to put in a display that serves as a tribute to the city, but it would be completely comprehensible if they were physically unable to do so.
They simply shouldn’t have to carry that kind of weight.
Mourinho himself now faces the equally difficult and unenviable task of keeping them focused for that game, since it is ultimately his job, and it was pointed that United’s pre-game press conference was cancelled at the request of the club.
The Portuguese instead issued a statement just before the squad flew to Sweden.
“We’re all very sad about the tragic events,” Mourinho said. “We can’t take out of our minds and hearts the victims and their families. I know, even during my short time here, that the people of Manchester will pull together as one.
“We have a job to do and will fly to Sweden to do that job. It’s a pity we cannot fly with the happiness we always have before a big game.”
There are perhaps fair questions over whether Mourinho should have taken the responsibility to speak publicly as a representative of the city, but it feels small-minded to offer criticism like that at a time like this.
It was similarly so incongruous during Ajax’s press conference when questions about the atrocity were so quickly followed by technical football questions or Ajax’s style of play.
Mourinho was also said by United sources to be hugely impressive in talking to the team about the duty to play for the city, to play for the children that died.
Amidst so much sadness and emotion, the actual team details feel similarly incongruous, although it is expected that Marouane Fellaini will start over Juan Mata in a United team missing the injured Marcos Rojo and suspended Eric Bailly.
Ahead of a normal game, that would bring a lot of discussion over the team’s style, over what it means for the contest.
This is no normal game, though. It’s no longer about any of that, or even the result.
It’s about something so much bigger.
Belfast Telegraph Digital