Sir Alex Ferguson has heaped praise on Jose Mourinho for the way in which he skilfully guided Manchester United to their first ever Europa League triumph earlier this year.
The Portuguese insisted that a club of United’s magnitude shouldn’t be in the Europa League but duly paid respect to the competition by fielding a strong side throughout the group stages, cementing a place in the last 32 against Saint Etienne.
By January, the competition had taken on a different meaning. United were struggling in the Premier League – specifically at home to lesser sides – and started to envision winning the Europa League as their best route into the Champions League. And Mourinho’s men, from then on, were imperious throughout the knockout stages, swiping aside Saint Etienne before enjoying dominant victories over FC Rostov, Anderlecht and Celta Vigo, with Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba emerging as Mourinho’s crucial game-changers.
And then came the final in Stockholm. Ajax were United’s opponents and posed a real threat with a superb, energetic young side. Mourinho’s men, on the other hand, were a depleted force ridden with injuries. They had played 63 games ahead of the clash with Peter Bosz’s men. But the Portuguese, as he often does, treated the watching world to a masterclass in pragmatism, squeezing the space high up the pitch to prevent Ajax’s forwards from hitting top gear and using Maroaune Fellaini as an outboard to bring United up the pitch. Goals from Pogba and Mkhitaryan handed United an emotional 2-0 win and a place in the Champions League for this season.
And Ferguson, speaking at an annual Uefa Elite Coaches Forum, praised the attitude Mourinho took into a tournament that many would have considered a secondary matter.
“I think that the Europa League has taken on arms and legs since they made the decision to let the winner enter the Champions League,” he said.
“Jose seized on that and he was playing his best team in every round, right from the start. He deserved to win it because his attitude was first class.
“Once Jose realised he wasn’t going to win the league back home in England, his intent of winning the Europa League became greater and greater as each round came along. That was a great achievement.”