Manchester United were winners of the 2016-17 Europa League, overcoming a young Ajax side 2-0 in the final in Sweden. With Jose Mourinho’s men failing to qualify for the top four domestically in order to reach the Champions League, their best hope was to win the Europa League, and they duly obliged thanks to goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The most impactful coaching change saw the prolifically successful Unai Emery leave defending champions, Sevilla, for Paris Saint-Germain, with Jorge Sampaoli coming in to replace him at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. With Sevilla qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage, the winners of the last three tournaments would not defend their title this campaign. Astana, Dundalk, Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Konyaspor, Mainz 05, Nice, Osmanlıspor, Sassuolo, Southampton and Zorya Luhansk made their debuts in the competition.
The Europa League has become synonymous with Sevilla in recent years; they won the trophy in its old guise of the Uefa Cup in 2006 and 2007, and had dominated the seasons prior to this won, winning three in a row against Benfica, Dnipro and Liverpool, but their qualification for the Champions League knockouts, where they would lose to Leicester City, ended that run.
The group stage was unusually affected by a surrounding political climate, as due to the unrest between the countries, Ukrainian and Russian clubs could not be drawn against each other. Four teams qualified impressively without losing a match - Saint-Etienne, Roma, Ajax, and Shakhtar Donetsk. The biggest win came from Anderlecht, who destroyed German Bundesliga side Mainz 6-1 in Brussels.
Inter were the most established side to struggle, finishing rock bottom of a group that contained Sparta Prague, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, and Southampton. The awful campaign from the ultimately cost both Frank de Boer and Stefano Vecchi their jobs.
As the Champions League sides dropped into the competition, it begun in earnest with a series of Interesting clashes. Two of the Pogba brothers, Paul and Florentin, faced off against each other as Manchester United took on Saint-Etienne, United winning comfortably 4-0 on aggregate, while Villarreal took on Roma, with an Edin Dzeko hat-trick destroying the Yellow Submarines. Elsewhere, Tottenham’s propensity to struggle in Europe continued as they were knocked out by Belgian cracks Gent. Lyon demolished AZ 11-2 on aggregate, Borussia Monchengladbach eliminated Fiorentina, while Celta Vigo knocked out the well-fancied Shakhtar after extra-time in Donetsk,
The Round of 16 witnessed a battle of Germany as Schalke took on Borussia Monchengladbach, with the former emerging on away goals in a well-fought tie. The undoubted tie of the round pitted Roma against Lyon, and in a highly entertaining encounter the Ligue 1 side would emerge victorious 5-4 over the two legs; late goals from Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette in the first leg proved vital. Manchester United were functional, nothing more, in their elimination of Rostov, while Ajax relied on the goals of young star Kasper Dolberg to see off Copenhagen.
I don’t know the way the other clubs think; I don’t know what is important for them. At Manchester United, for us it’s more important to win titles than to finish in the top four.Jose Mourinho
The quarter-final stage proved to be one of the most entertaining in the competition’s history with no less than 25 goals scored. Once again Lyon were involved in a thrilling clash, this time with Besiktas. After the home side won 2-1 in either leg, a tense penalty shoot-out required 18 kicks until Maxime Gonalons settled things. Ajax were heading for the exit after going 3-2 down to Schalke, but two late extra-time goals saw them squeeze through. Celta Vigo defeated Genk while Manchester United, far from convincing, required an additional 30 minutes for Marcus Rashford to finally defeat a stubborn Anderlecht side.
In the semi-finals, United progressed courtesy of Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellaini as the Red Devils won 2-1 over two legs. Lyon once again provided the spectacle, but they were outgunned by a young Ajax team who were superb to watch in defeating the Ligue 1 side.
And so the final of the 2016-17 Europa League campaign took place on 24th May in the Friends Arena in Solna, Sweden. Even with the historical success of Ajax and United, this would be the first time the sides had met in a European final. Jose Mourinho, as he had done for much of the competition set up his team in a cautious manner and Ajax were unable to truly threaten a vastly more experienced side. It proved to be a fairly routine victory for United, with Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan scoring without reply to become only the fifth side in history after Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Chelsea to win the big three European trophies - Champions League, Europa League, and the defunct Cup Winners Cup.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
MANAGER OF THE SEASON
The Special One may have taken the scenic route, but he eventually guided Manchester United back to the Champions League.
YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON
The impressive young Dane’s stock continued to rise as he collected six goals helping Ajax to the final.
EDIN DZEKO, GIULIANO - 8 GOALS
TEAM OF THE SEASON
ROMERO; BAILLY, CABRAL, DE LIGT, Valencia; MARCELO; POGBA, HERRERA, MKHITARYAN; IBRAHIMOVIC, LACAZETTE, TRAORE.
GOAL OF THE SEASON
CORENTIN TOLISSO earned a move to Bayern Munich partly due to his performances in the Europa League, and this goal, with the double one-two with Lacazette on the edge of the box before a stunning finish into the corner, was the best of the tournament.
KEY MOMENT OF THE SEASON
With the Ajax fans in full voice in the final, their bubble was soon burst courtesy of a desperately unlucky conceded goal via a deflected Pogba strike.