Two teams historically known for being titans of European football will contest this season’s Europa League final. Both teams have been known to perform well in the Champions League in the past, but they’ll need to settle for Europe’s second tier competition this season, knowing a guaranteed place in the Champions League group stages next season is the prize they’re fighting for. For Ajax this will be a great opportunity to add to their trophy cabinet, and for United it will be similar, but there’s a slightly more solemn significance to this final for Jose Mourinho’s team than there is for the Dutch side.
If Mourinho manages to win this final he’ll get United a trophy they’ve never won, a place in the Champions League, and a confidence-boosting victory that may be a launch-pad for the team to compete for the league next season. Should he fail to win it, however, he’ll be reminded that United broke the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba, acquired the services of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, signed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and would still have achieved about the same as Louis van Gaal did last season. Sixth place and a League Cup after all those acquisitions would put an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny on Mourinho and put a bit of a dark cloud over the team. Having seen how a similar scenario deteriorated into meltdown at Chelsea barely a year ago, having his team lift the trophy on Wednesday is of paramount importance.
As far as the teams go, Ajax have a young, energetic side that enthusiastically stormed through the group and knockout stages. It wasn’t quite as comfortable a trip for United, though, who tried to achieve a top 4 spot in the league while simultaneously negotiating the schedule of Europa League fixtures, and in the end, failed in their bid to secure Champions League football the old fashioned way. They’re now facing the prospect of playing against a young, confident Ajax team while their own squad has several key members missing through injury or suspension, the most notable of which is Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the player who has scored the majority of United’s goals this season.
We’re going to have a look at the teams and try and identify where either of them could win or lose what could end up being a more dramatic Europa League final than usual.
For both sides, the attack is likely to be a case of seeing which set of young prodigies can outdo the other. With Zlatan absent United will be depending on up-and- coming Marcus Rashford, The 19 year old Manchester-born striker made a name for himself last season with some impressive performances and crucial goals, and continued with more promising displays this season. While he’s still raw and his decision-making isn’t as refined as that of older players he provides much-needed pace and finishing ability up front.
United will also have Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to call on up front, but none of them have had particularly stellar seasons in terms of goals and assists. The only notable player is Mkhitaryan, who has managed to save his best performances for this competition, having scored 5 goals in 9 appearances.
Ajax have their own 19 year old prodigy, Kasper Dolberg, who has been setting the Eredevisie alight, drawing favorable comparisons between himself and United’s injured Swedish legend. Also a lanky striker, with unusually composed dribbling ability, Dolberg has notched over 20 goals in all competitions, a fantastic return for a player so young.
In tandem with wide forward Bertrand Traore Ajax have a threatening attacking partnership combining Dolberg’s deft finishing with Traore’s speed and ability to stretch defenses and open gaps up for his fellow forward. While United may have some better known names, Ajax’s forward lineup is on-form and settled.
In midfield is where United could use their experience to potentially starve Ajax of possession. Both Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba have shown fantastic individual performances during the season, and have developed a good partnership at the same time. With the experience of Michael Carrick behind them it gives the two younger midfielders license to push forward and create chances for United’s depleted frontline. With a lack of options up front it will be vital for the United midfield to control the game and protect the defence from going toe-to-toe with Ajax’s attackers too often.
Ander Herrera was recently named United’s player of the season, for good reason, a United win and a good performance from Herrera often go hand in hand. This game will also be a good opportunity for Pogba to silence his critics, as he hasn’t quite managed to find his feet as quickly as some would’ve hoped an £89m player would.
On Ajax’s side, the most significant midfield influence is the creative midfielder Davy Klaassen, who has managed to rack up 16 goals and 10 assists from the #10 position. Those are impressive numbers for any midfielder in any league. He’s a threat not just because he can create for his teammates, but because he is equally capable at finishing chances himself. United are going to need to keep a close eye on him, and Mourinho may elect to have a United midfielder man-mark Klaassen the way he instructed Herrera to do against Chelsea’s Eden Hazard a few weeks ago.
Although they’re young, Ajax’s center-back pairing of de Ligt and Sanchez have helped them achieve the joint best defensive record in the Eredevisie this past season. Davinson Sanchez, in particular, has impressed the entire season and has allegedly become a prospective signing for several of Europe’s elite clubs. After a red card in the semi-final second leg Nick Viergever will be missing for the Dutch side at left back.
United’s defensive record across all competitions has been exemplary all season, as is usually a hallmark of any Mourinho team. However, that good defensive structure was built on the partnership of Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly, neither available due to injury and suspension respectively.
So although United have the second best defensive record in the Premier League, the two center-backs primarily responsible won’t play any role in the final. It will be up to Chris Smalling and Daley Blind to fill that gap, which is an unenviable task.
Antonio Valencia has been fantastic at right-back, but the core of United’s defense is likely to leave a lot to be desired and could easily be punished by Ajax’s synergistic attack.
Traore and Dolberg vs. Blind and Smalling: Neither Blind nor Smalling are blessed with pace, and both have shown questionable performances throughout the season. An unstable center-back pairing does not match up well against Ajax’s on-song strikers and they’ll look to test Smalling and Blind at any opportunity.
Herrera vs. Klaassen: Snuffing out Ajax’s creative ability will make a needed contribution to keeping their forwards quiet, and that task is likely to fall on Herrera’s shoulders. Klaassen’s goals and assists return from midfield should be a concern for the Red Devils, and he’ll need to be kept out of the game at all costs.
Mkhitaryan and Rashford vs. Sanchez and de Ligt: Mkhitaryan and Rashford have been the most dynamic and influential forwards for United in the Europa League, since United have been so disappointing at converting chances into goals this season it’s most likely going to come down to some individual impetus to drag them to victory in this game.
Mourinho has a difficult task ahead of him, and the pressure is definitely on the English side far more than on Ajax, who will just be happy to have the opportunity to win a trophy. A lot is riding on this game for United, a win will get them Champions League football next season and all the benefits that come with it, while a loss is likely to produce whispers of discontent that follow all Mourinho’s teams when they’re busy struggling.
Although United still have a lot of talent to call on, they desperately need this victory to arrest their slide into obscurity and the story of an underdog unseating a giant feels like it may unfold in this final.
Score Prediction: AFC Ajax 2-1 Manchester United FC