Will this be remembered as a successful season for Manchester United? In a way, it already is. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can prepare for this Europa League final knowing the stakes are not too high. He has achieved the minimum expectation at Old Trafford at the start of every campaign: qualifying for the Champions League.
Not only that, but there was no final day scramble to claim a top four spot this year. United’s ascent to finish as Premier League runners-up was relatively serene. An unbeaten 14-game run during the second half of the season meant they never looked like collapsing and joining the nip-and-tuck race contested below them.
And then, even though they failed to mount a sustained title challenge, United finished their league campaign eight points better off than last season. Solskjaer has always insisted that his players are making progress, even when all the evidence has pointed against him. Now, on the surface, that evidence is in his favour.
Harry Maguire spoke along the same lines as his manager this week while in conversation with Gary Neville. “I think we are improving. From last season to this season we are definitely improving,” he said. The United captain is aiming higher. “We’ve got to be winning Premier League titles. Second isn’t good enough, and I’m sure the lads all agree on that.”
Yet dig a little deeper into that league position and you begin to question whether it is as convincing as it seems. United finished with 74 points, only enough for a third-place finish in your average season. It is the total of a top-four team rather than typical runners-up. In fact, four years ago, Arsenal took a point more and still failed to qualify for the Champions League.
If the title is the aim as Maguire says, improvement is needed. No team has won it during the Premier League era with 74 points or fewer. Generally, you need to finish in the mid-to-late 80s to stand a fair chance. For this season’s United, that would mean another four or five wins. It is quite a lot of ground to make up.
Perhaps that is why, despite the runners-up finish and the many high points that they have enjoyed this season, this season’s sense of progress feels a little fragile in Gdansk. If Solskjaer wins the first trophy of his spell in charge, that optimism will last into the summer. Lose to Unai Emery’s Villarreal and feelings will, at best, be mixed.
It is unfair and unreasonable to make such sweeping judgements on the outcome of one game but that is often the reality, and Solskjaer admitted that much on the eve of this final. When asked directly whether United needed to win this final for their season to be deemed a success, he somewhat surprisingly began his response with: “Yeah, of course…”
“You go into every game… the next one is the most important one,” he continued. “This now is a final which happens to be at the end of the season. You can define the season after tomorrow. So far we’ve improved, but as you say, we’ll only go home happy if we win tomorrow.”
United should win, too. They have been the outright favourites to win this competition ever since dropping into it in February. Better sides than Villarreal have been beaten along the way. Emery is a Europa League expert, previously reaching four finals and winning three, but could only manage a seventh-placed finish in La Liga.
One setback for United is that Maguire will almost certainly be missing. Solskjaer said his captain might “jog up and down the sideline a little bit” and “try to join in” with their training session at Gdansk’s Stadion Miejski but he instead watched from the dugout, nursing the ankle ligament injury about which increasingly little is known.
At the same time as United’s session, the England manager was holding a briefing in which he revealed that he has received little information on Maguire’s fitness and availability from United. Gareth Southgate claimed United are conscious of leaks handing an advantage to their opponents ahead of a European final.
With Maguire taking up a sedentary position for the whole session, it’s safe to say the cat is now out of the bag. The question is not so much whether he will play against Villarreal but whether he will have recovered in time to start England’s opening game of Euro 2020 against Croatia on 13 June.
Even so, his absence from this final should not be decisive. A club of United’s stature and resources should expect to beat Villarreal and should expect to win the Europa League when competing in it. Then again, this is the fourth time they have played at this level in the last six seasons. Only once have they brought the trophy back with them.
There is optimism that United are gradually leaving this second-tier of European competition behind. That is down to Solskjaer, and he may be about to get his hands on a big shiny, silver symbol of the progress he has made, but a surprise defeat could scupper that and bring United’s season into a much sharper focus.