Mourinho can't afford to return from Europa League final empty-handed
Manchester United booked their place in the final of the Europa League on Thursday night, following a 1-1 draw with Celta Vigo. They have essentially sacrificed their Premier League campaign this season to further their progression in the Europa League. Or their progression in the Europa League damaged their ability to compete for a top-four finish.
Jose Mourinho has never been a fan of the competition, but with every round that United managed to get through, the appeal to get in to the Champions League through the back door grew. It became United's security blanket just in case their bid for finishing in the top four failed, but in the end, maybe it was the cause of their failure.
United have now played in 60 games this season, compared to the 43 of Chelsea, 45 of Liverpool, 50 of Tottenham Hotspur, 51 of Arsenal and 53 of Manchester City, the teams who are above United in the table.
The gruelling schedule of playing on a Thursday and Sunday for so many weeks has taken its toll on the squad. Mourinho arguably could have rotated the players better than he did but the mounting lists of injuries, coupled with the extra fatigue caused by the diminishing option of players available, has left United in a real mess domestically.
Having reached the League Cup final and the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, as well as the Europa League final in Stockholm, their problems have only mounted. They have paid the price for their success in the cup competitions with their position in the league.
You would imagine that Mourinho will now rest his key players in the remaining three league games to avoid further disaster ahead of Stockholm. United are already without their top scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, through injury, who likely would have thrived in the stadium of his national team. They're also now without their best defender too, thanks to Eric Bailly's moment of madness in the closing stages of the Celta Vigo game on Thursday night, which sees him suspended.
Ajax's season finishes on Sunday, giving them 10 days to prepare for the final. United, in contrast, have a further three league games to play in that time. Mourinho will want to keep his best players match fit while also being wary of injuries.
Mourinho will be acutely aware of just how much pressure he is under, given his task as what many believed was the rightful successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, was to put United back in the title race and competing in the Champions League again. Having failed miserably with the first objective, he has to achieve the second. His job doesn't depend on it but it will certainly mean huge questions are asked of him and his capabilities.
It was clear just how much the win meant to him on Thursday, as he twirled a United scarf in front of the Stretford End, shouting and thumping the air. This was the sort of passion United fans have been waiting to see all season. His outbursts have been visible time and again, from sliding on his knees at Old Trafford following Porto's famous victory in 2004, demanding Chelsea supporters keep their chin up following United's title win in 2007, parading around the Camp Nou after his Inter side knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2010, or falling to his knees when Real Madrid beat Manchester City in 2012.
He has cut a grumpy figure at United, showing flashes of interest, like when grabbing his United badge following his team's 2-0 win over Chelsea last month, but has largely been subdued. The win over Celta Vigo showed him in the light the supporters have wanted to see him in all season.
If United are to lose in Stockholm, his first season in charge will be less successful than either campaign under Louis van Gaal and marginally better than that of David Moyes.
With one piece of silverware already in the bag, a step up from anything Pep Guardiola has offered during his first season, securing Champions League football would mean that only Chelsea have had a more successful season.
If United finish the campaign with two trophies, even if they are obviously less coveted than the European Cup or FA Cup, and the promise of Champions League football, then Mourinho can be satisfied with his debut season.
The final will be Mourinho's seventh encounter against Ajax and he has beaten them in all previous meetings. The Dutch side are young and play great football, scoring plenty of goals, yet questions will be asked over whether they will be able to hold their own against a much more experienced side in the final.
Ajax have struggled on the road of late, winning one and losing four of their past seven, while United boast a brilliant record away from home. Only Chelsea have collected more points per game than Mourinho's team.
Given a choice between lifting another trophy or finishing in the top four, most United fans would hope for the former. The buzz of a cup final and seeing the players dancing around on the pitch with another piece of silverware beats anything that the likes of City, Liverpool or Spurs will experience this season.
Yet it's all or nothing now, with all the eggs in one basket. Mourinho cannot afford to come back to Manchester with anything but another trophy in his hands. If he does, maybe we will see a more passionate Mourinho and a more confident United team next season.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.