Manchester United’s Juan Mata says recent events made the Europa League the most special honour of his career to date, but he wants the club to build on it.
Less than 48 hours before kick-off against Ajax in Sweden, an explosion at the end of Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena killed 22 people and injured many more.
The after effects will be felt for a long time to come but United provided a cathartic, if only temporary, release on Wednesday, winning the Europa League as goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan secured a 2-0 victory.
Mata, like his team-mates, dedicated the triumph to the city he calls home, saying Europa League success meant more than winning the World Cup, European Championship or Champions League given the circumstances.
“This was, I would say, more special than any other trophy because of that,” the Spain international said.
“We felt the suffering and the sadness of the city of Manchester and we tried to give this trophy for them.
“That’s how we felt before the game, that’s how we feel now.
“We feel a bit proud to have done that. Hopefully, they can be happy for at least some hours.”
Mata says United tried to “lift the spirit of the town” at a time when it is not easy not to focus on something as insignificant as football.
In sporting terms, though, this was a key victory at the end of an arduous 64-game season for United.
EFL Cup and Community Shield triumphs had been tempered by stumbling home sixth in the Premier League, meaning lifting the Europa League was their only way of qualifying for the Champions League.
“Today was all or nothing – almost nothing for us,” Mata said, before smiling. “But we got it all.
“We got three trophies, we are playing Champions League next season, so I think it is fair to say it was a great season for us considering all the difficulties we have.
“We play Champions League next season, we could celebrate three trophies and we are happy for that.
“Again, big games that a club like United should always play. Big clubs that me as a player love to play, so I feel really proud to have won my first European trophy with United – but hopefully it is the first of many.”
United will get another shot at a continental trophy when they line up against Real Madrid or Juventus in the Super Cup final in Skopje, Macedonia on August 8.
Big names are likely to arrive at Old Trafford before then as United look to win the Premier League for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired four years ago.
“It’s one of the trophies I haven’t won in my career and it would be amazing to win it with United,” former Chelsea favourite Mata said.
“This was about trying to play Champions League next season.
“Hopefully this season is a big step in confidence and thinking about next season, and trying to be better and trying to compete for the Champions League and the Premier League. That’s one of things we need to be better at.
“Obviously in the last games, we focused on this game and we drop some points. But playing for Manchester United we should do better in the Premier League and that’s our aim next season: trying to win it. That’s it.”