Stockholm, Sweden | AFP | Manchester United will attempt to put aside their grief on Wednesday in a Europa League final against Ajax scarred by the deadly terror attack in their home city.
What should have been a showpiece occasion will instead carry a sombre tone, with players joining together for a pre-match minute’s silence in memory of the 22 people killed at Manchester Arena on Monday.
“It should be one big celebration, but when something like this happens two days before, the fact we’ve been discussing it just goes to show the impact,” Ajax coach Peter Bosz told his pre-game media conference in Stockholm.
“It is a match that Manchester wants to win, that we want to win and that we are going to try to win. But there is a shadow hanging over this final.”
United cancelled their own pre-match press conference, with their only public appearance a solemn walk around the Friends Arena pitch as evening descended over the Swedish capital on Tuesday.
United manager Jose Mourinho said he and his players were finding it hard not to think about the attack, which targeted fans leaving a pop concert by the American singer Ariana Grande and left 59 people injured.
“We can’t take out of our minds and hearts the victims and their families,” Mourinho said in comments published on Twitter by United.
United captain Wayne Rooney described the news as “devastating”, while executive vice-chaiman Ed Woodward said everyone at the club was “numb”.
“We’ve got a job to do tomorrow, no question about that, and that hasn’t been changed, but I think what happened last night really put things into perspective,” Woodward told MUTV.
“Success on the pitch really is nothing compared to the pain and suffering going on back home. That is really where our thoughts are at this point in time.”
United’s players will wear black armbands and a pre-match ceremony has been truncated.
European governing body UEFA said it had “no specific intelligence” suggesting the final would be targeted by attacks.
– ‘The Ajax way’ –
Security arrangements have already been ramped up following last month’s truck attack in Stockholm, which claimed five lives and injured around 15 people.
While thoughts of what happened in Manchester will never be far away, the game itself is not short of significance.
United are seeking to win the only trophy they have never won and, in doing so, secure a place in next season’s Champions League, having failed to qualify via the Premier League.
They can also become only the fifth club — after Ajax, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chelsea — to have won the Champions League, the Europa League and the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Mourinho, who won the UEFA Cup with Porto in 2003, has already steered United to League Cup glory, but he accepts his maiden Old Trafford season will be perceived as a failure if his side fall to Bosz’s dazzling young Ajax team.
There will be no glorious homecoming for Zlatan Ibahimovic, United’s Swedish former Ajax striker, who is injured, while centre-back Eric Bailly is suspended.
Ajax, four-time European champions, have reached their first European final since a 4-2 loss on penalties to Juventus in the 1995-96 Champions League.
They won the previous season’s Champions League and with fabled figures from their 1990s golden team now employed behind the scenes, there is a feeling that the Amsterdam giants have rediscovered themselves.
“All the young players in Ajax are blessed,” said Bosz, who will be without suspended centre-back Nick Viergever.
“A lot of those players are still working in Ajax. We have Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars, our CEOs. Dennis Bergkamp is one of our assistant coaches.
“Obviously the young players know our history because they’re educated from our youth academy.
“We have our own way of playing, which I always call the Ajax way of playing. Tomorrow, if we can play our way, we have a chance.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 23, 2017