This Wednesday, the Europa League Final will be played in Stockholm, and will feature two vastly different football clubs. Manchester United and AFC Ajax are set to square off in a battle of clashing styles and generations. In anticipation of the season’s first major European League final, lets look at what is at stake for each team.
It is genuinely impressive that Ajax are even in this Europa League final considering how young and inexperienced they are as a team. They lost out on the Eredivisie title by 1 point to Feyenoord, but that is a result of their early season struggles.
This is a team that has done nothing but improve as the season has drawn out, which is to be expected considering that some stars of the team consist of such young players like Donny van de Beek (20), Kasper Dolberg (19), Davinson Sanchez (20), Matthijs de Ligt (17), and Justin Kluivert (18) among many others.
Not many people question the talent level of Ajax, but the inexperience and naive nature of many players does draw some concern. High pressure games such as a cup final quite often expose young players, leaving them vulnerable and nervous.
On the flip side, these are no run-of-the-mill youngsters. Many of them have been moulded to play football at this level from the ages of 9 to 12. There is a reason they are so trusted at such a young age. Ajax will undoubtedly go into this match with no fear.
Manchester United’s outlook:
In contrast to Ajax, Manchester United have a great deal of pressure mounting on them for this Europa League final. Ajax will have a chance to play Champions League football next season even if they lose this match.
United, however, finished in 6th place in the Premier League and failed to qualify for the Champions League via finishing inside the top four.
Mourinho has basically wagered his recent games at the end of the season on a single match, on a neutral pitch, against an immensely talented opponent. If they lose the Europa League final, they will have had a worse campaign than they ever did under Louis van Gaal. To say there is pressure on them is a massive understatement.
Karma is not on the side of Manchester United, but the betting odds are. United are more experienced than their opposition. For almost all of United’s players this match will not be the biggest one they have played during their careers.
Ironically, despite all of the relative experience the Red Devils have, possibly the most in form player in the squad, Marcus Rashford, is a teenager himself.
The versatile forward will be hoping that he can erase Zlatan’s injury from the minds of United fans. You would also have to expect a player of Paul Pogba’s calibre to show up in Stockholm.
The head to head outlook:
Jose Mourinho has made a career out of grinding out results. Even though he may not have his kind of preferred personnel that he did at the likes of Inter and Chelsea, he has certainly brought his scrappy style of football to Manchester.
Ajax, on the other hand, like to get their results in style. They prefer a wide open match, with acres of space and lots of opportunities to showcase their class.
Manager Peter Bosz seems to feel comfortable relying on the raw talent of his defenders to keep opponents at bay. Ajax centre backs Sanchez and de Ligt are fantastic open field tacklers with great instincts, but when teams like Schalke and Lyon have pressed for goals against Ajax, they certainly have found them.
United may be well served to be aggressive and stay aggressive. They certainly have the quality to do so and allowing Ajax to have a go at their defence is just asking for it.
Hakim Ziyech is simply magical at times, the Ajax youngsters are fearless in attack, and Davy Klaassen seems to conjure up goals out of nowhere from the midfield. United needs to grab this game by the scruff of the neck and not let go.
Manchester United 3-2 Ajax
United might be initially taken aback by the class of the Ajax youngsters but their focus will prevail in the end. United’s main threat will be Marcus Rashford who, unlike the youth of Ajax, has veterans around him to make him feel comfortable in a game of such high stakes and will allow him to really go to work. Other game standouts might be Pogba for United and Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek of Ajax.