As the Red Devils look to win the competition for the second time in four years, they know this time that they must kick on regardless of the result
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walks out at Stadion Miejski in Gdansk on Wednesday evening, it will be a moment of pride for the Norwegian.
After four semi-final defeats, the Europa League final will mark his first time managing Manchester United in a showpiece event; within their grasp a realistic chance of silverware that would point towards progress being made at Old Trafford.
Should United beat Villarreal and lift the trophy, the celebrations will be big. And, rightly so.
It will be the first trophy this group of players has won, and there is a real belief within the club that that getting that first piece of silverware will be the catalyst for more.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Solskjaer admitted to the fans lucky enough to get into United’s final home game of the season against Fulham last week.
And while he was talking about their league position, the same is true in Europe.
Since United last reached the Champions League final back in 2011, they have not made it past the quarter-finals once, reaching the last eight on just two occasions (2013-14 and 2018-19).
Their chances of continental success has looked more far more likely in the Europa League – a competition they won under Jose Mourinho in 2017 – than in the tournament they last won when beating Chelsea in 2008.
United fans used to mock supporters of clubs competing in UEFA’s secondary competition, teasing them with chants of ‘Thursday night, Channel 5’ to reflect which television station would be covering their continental adventures.
But over the past decade, the most successful club in English football history has found themselves more at home in Europe’s second tier.
The issue for them over the past few seasons has been consistency. Impressive performances against Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in the Champions League group stage this season were irrelevant after the shambles in Turkey against Istanbul Basaksehir, who finished 12th in the Super Lig this season.
But while the odd disappointing performance should not unexpected given the inexperience in Solskjaer’s squad, the concern is that the current roster is not deep enough for them to compete on all fronts at the very highest level.
You only need to look at the way they limped out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage last season, with Solskjaer choosing not to make any substitutions against Sevilla until the 87th minute despite his team clearly being fatigued.
The impression he gave then is that he did not trust in the capabilities of those outside of his preferred XI to change the game. Given how United won the Champions League back in 1999, that is perhaps the biggest difference between the current group and Sir Alex Ferguson’s various different squads.
“If you look at the squad Man City has, with the utmost respect to everyone else, that’s the best team in the country,” ex-United midfielder Owen Hargreaves told Goal.
“For United to compete they’re going to have to invest heavily and back Ole.”
Investment, for the most part, has not been the problem in recent years, but since Solskjaer arrived back at the club they have gone about rectifying previous mistakes that were made in altering the transfer structure in the post-Ferguson years.
Out with the big names, and in with players who buy into the vision and are committed to the rebuild.
Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young left, while in came Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, as well as a promotion for Mason Greenwood.
Greenwood’s form in the last few weeks of the season, alongside the addition of Edinson Cavani to the squad and Paul Pogba playing well on the left, means Solskjaer has some big selection decisions to make ahead of the final.
Whomever he goes with from the start, he will still have at least one potential game-changer on the bench. Right there is a sign of the progress that is being made.
That greater strength in depth could be what pushes them over the line this time, but how much does it really mean when that line is merely the Europa League?
“I know everyone wants to be in the Champions League, especially Man United players, but a European final is special and when there’s a trophy there to celebrate with all the staff and players and coaches it’s a beautiful thing,” Hargreaves said.
“If you’re one of the biggest teams in the world, which obviously Manchester United are, you want to be in the biggest competition. With their history of winning the Champions League, that’s where they want to be.”
And while being in the Champions League is one thing, going deep and winning the competition is another thing entirely.
“It’s hard,” Hargreaves added. “Look at PSG and Man City and how much money they’ve invested to try and win this trophy, which they haven’t been able to do. City are close this year but there’s only one team that actually wins it.
“You think about the competition that there is with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and all our great English teams, so it’s hard. Everyone wants to win it, but only one can and hopefully this can be a springboard.
“For United and for Ole, I think they can be proud of the fact that they’re a lot better than last year. They had that issue with the semi-finals and they’ve addressed that this year. They’ve already gone one step further ,but can they go that next one and win a trophy?
“For them to win a trophy and finish second, they’re taking steps forward and that’s all you can ask for as a fan.”
The key to everything when anyone mentions United pushing on from where they are now is an investment.
Historically, funding for transfers has dipped in summers after Champions League qualification has been secured, but there is no margin for error now.
Solskjaer has been building the foundations for the past few years, but United will never reach the promised land of the latter stages of the Champions League without more investment and savvy recruitment.
No matter what happens in Gdansk, Solskjaer is expected to be given a new contract, and with it more time to realise his Manchester United dream.
The first step to realising that is winning the Europa League, but he and all those around him know that is not the end game for a club of United’s stature.
Unlike in 2017, it needs to be just the beginning.