London (AFP) – Following a season of fits and starts, Paul Pogba will be expected to deliver the goods when Manchester United tackle Ajax in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
Much like his team, Pogba has shown only fleeting flickers of form since his world-record £89.3 million ($116 million, 103.3 million euros) return to United from Juventus last year.
With Jose Mourinho’s side needing to beat Ajax to qualify for the Champions League, Pogba has a chance to both salvage his club’s season and silence his own critics.
“When you pay nearly £90 million for someone, you would expect them to blow your mind away at times on the football pitch,” former England striker Alan Shearer wrote in The Sun recently.
“But there have not been many times — if any this season — when you have watched the former Juventus midfielder and thought, ‘Wow.'”
United’s meeting with Peter Bosz’s precocious Ajax team at Stockholm’s Friends Arena follows a difficult period for Pogba.
The 24-year-old France midfielder recently spent time on the sidelines with what Mourinho described as muscle fatigue.
Reports suggest he is receiving ongoing treatment for a hamstring problem that kept him on the sidelines for three weeks in late March.
It emerged recently that world governing body FIFA is investigating Pogba’s switch from Juventus amid reports his agent, Mino Raiola, made £41.3 million from the deal.
Most gravely of all, Pogba recently lost his father, Fassou Antoine, who passed away following a long illness.
After a period of compassionate leave, Pogba returned to the starting XI against Crystal Palace on Sunday, contributing a goal and an assist as United closed their league campaign with a 2-0 win.
He created the opening goal for 21-year-old Josh Harrop with a fine, outside-of-the-foot pass down the inside-left channel and scored United’s second before being withdrawn at half-time with Ajax in mind.
Pogba celebrated his goal by pointing to the sky above Old Trafford and later posted on social media: “My goal is for my Pap.”
– ‘Unfair analysis’ –
Pogba’s strike was his first in the league since he headed in an 86th-minute winner in a 2-1 home victory over Middlesbrough on New Year’s Eve.
He briefly found form around the turn of the year, scoring three goals and supplying three assists in 10 league games, and picked up a League Cup winner’s medal in February.
But prior to Sunday’s game against Palace, he had not played a part in a league goal in 2017.
In the Europa League knockout phase, it has been Pogba’s fellow close-season signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as well as Marcus Rashford, who have typically carried the fight.
But Mourinho continues to express satisfaction with Pogba’s contributions, singling out his display on a difficult pitch in United’s 1-1 draw away to Rostov in the round of 16.
“The way he played in Rostov was amazing,” the United manager told Omnisport.
“He had little matches where the performance was not so good, but normally the performance is related to the team.
“So when the team was very good, he was very good. When the team didn’t perform so well, he didn’t perform so well.
“If his transfer fee was half of it, everybody would say ‘What a buy,’ ‘He’s playing more than good’.
“But everybody expects performances according to that huge transfer fee and that brings pressure and that brings sometimes unfair analysis.”
With the influential Ibrahimovic sidelined, there is even greater expectation that Pogba will stand up and be counted against an exciting but callow Ajax team.
He has tasted defeat in the two biggest matches of his career so far, losing to Barcelona with Juve in the 2015 Champions League final and falling to defeat with France against Portugal in the Euro 2016 decider.
Fall short for a third time and his price tag will only become heavier.