Richard Buxton: Improve or implode, United
Man United's lackadaisical displays in two-legged win over Celta do not augur well for final against Ajax
Sooner or later, Jose Mourinho will have to pull back the mask and hold up a mirror to his true feelings.
He can deny them for only so long, temporarily hiding behind a facade that he knows will eventually crack under the pressure.
Manchester United's passage into the Europa League final with a 2-1 aggregate win over Celta Vigo brought the latest exercise full circle.
Twirling a scarf and fist-pumping with gusto in front of the Stretford End, the Special One fought back tears as he appeared to have rediscovered his own love for football that difficult relationships in previously more politicised surroundings had seemingly tainted beyond repair.
Yet amid that medley of unbridled joy Friday morning (Singapore time), there was catharsis.
That elation at reaching the showpiece of a competition he had previously, and regularly, sneered illustrated just how close he knew his master plan had come to backfiring.
Though victorious, his United side were disjointed and lacked control for large parts.
They remain a far cry from the Portuguese's managerial career of fashioning highly-organised teams that had made extraordinary feats appear formality-like and borderline mundane.
Indiscipline manifested itself in different forms - Ander Herrera's poor attention to detail gifted Celta a lifeline into the tie in allowing Facundo Roncaglia to equalise, while Eric Bailly's headlessness sees Mourinho heading to Stockholm with an increasingly weakened defence.
That inability to oversee proceedings with any real composure was spared further punishment only by the visitors' profligacy.
Unlike John Guidetti, who was denied a return to his homeland on May 24 with a stoppage- time miss, Ajax will not be anywhere near as merciful.
Mourinho will invariably argue that the Dutch side, whose Eredivisie campaign ends Sunday, have an unfair advantage with a 10-day rest period before they take on the Red Devils in the final.
Fatigue, however, will be the least of United's problems against Peter Bosz's side.
Built with resources which would make their opposite number baulk, Ajax have become redefined as a team truly built in Johan Cruyff's image.
The chance to punish a side that rarely operate at their full capabilities this season is unlikely to be passed up.
The Red Devils have often proved lackadaisical during their supposed reboot of the Alex Ferguson dynasty that has, after four years in the relative wilderness, never truly been forthcoming despite Mourinho's attempts to dress it up as an unqualified success.
Winning without effort still comes naturally but not quite as comprehensively.
Last week's narrow first-leg win at the Estadio de Balaidos was not comfortable enough and the return leg at Old Trafford yesterday morning proved far too close for comfort.
There is, it seems, still no happy medium.
A temptation to sit back and consolidate the advantage may have saved Mourinho this time around, but Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian's shaky performances do not augur well for their confrontation with an Ajax front-line boasting Davy Klaassen and Kasper Dolberg.
The Amsterdam club will have precious little to lose when they prepare to step out in the Swedish capital other than the motivation of ending a 21-year wait for a major European trophy.
United, on the other hand, have everything riding on the clash at the Friends Arena in a season where their manager neglected the option of fighting for a Champions League return on dual fronts.
Only time will now tell whether he was right to take that gamble with their fate.