Having finished outside of the top four again, the way forward for Manchester United lies through the Europa League. But if Jose Mourinho’s team is to find their way into next season’s Champions League, they must get past a dangerous young Ajax side that has already qualified for Europe next season, and has its eye on the loftier goal of bringing a European title back to Amsterdam for the first time in 22 years.
While the smart money is on the Premier League giants, Mourinho and his charges will underestimate Ajax at their own peril. While the common wisdom has it that the Premier League is far superior to the Dutch Eredivisie these days, Ajax is a team with a European pedigree on par with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
And while it’s true that the European trophies in the cabinet of the newly rechristened Johan Cruyff Arena were won long ago, this Ajax side will play with the freedom of being underdogs, and of not needing to win to play top-flight European soccer next fall.
A young team that bristles with attacking talent, Ajax also has a smart, dedicated coach in Peter Bosz. Since taking charge last May, the 53 year old has reinvigorated the classic football values that made Ajax the top team in the world in the early 1970s.
Fluid, dynamic, attacking football, played by youthful, gifted talents like striker Kasper Dolberg, midfield maestro Davy Klaassen, and winger Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick Kluivert, the man who scored the winning goal the last time Ajax triumphed on Europe, the 1995 Champions League.
It’s a finely tuned, well-honed side that narrowly missed out on wresting the Dutch title from rivals Feyenoord in the final stretch of the season. But Ajax is a selling club these days, a talent factory, and Bosz and his young charges will be eager to win something before the big clubs in England, Spain and Germany start rocking up at the Arena and offering wads of cash for the likes of Dolberg, Klaassen and Amin Younes.
It’s a tricky proposition for a Manchester United team that’s been inconsistent at best this season, and lost its leading scorer – Zlatan Ibrahimovic – to an ACL tear in an earlier Europa League outing.
United does have the advantage when it comes to experience. Mourinho may have lost some of his sheen in the past couple seasons, but he’s still regarded as one of the top coaches in the game. He’s also three for three in terms of winning every European final he’s previously contested.
Even without Zlatan, this is still a United team that boasts world-class midfield talents like Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera. Losing Zlatan is a blow, but against this young Ajax side, there may be advantages to deploying pacier, younger attackers like Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.
While Ajax have been impressive in attack, outscoring the likes of Schalke 04 and Lyon in two-legged ties in their march to the final, this team has shown itself to be vulnerable in defense. The youth and inexperience of the backline is the kind of weakness Mourinho will likely have identified, and will send his team out with instructions to exploit.
It’s a finely poised tie that pits youthful exuberance against experienced and proven talents. The battle of wits between the managers is also something to watch. Mourinho, the well-traveled master calculator who will do whatever is necessary to win, against Bosz, the football idealist, committed to the ideals of Cruyff and maintaining a link to the Dutch “total football” of the 1970s.
Beyond that, it’s a clash between two of the most successful, storied sides in the history of European football. A match that once upon a time, would have been every bit as tantalizing a Champions League final as Real Madrid’s clash with Juventus next month.
That it will be played in the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier competition, should not detract from the thrill of watching these two football giants – who hold seven European titles between them – slug it out in Stockholm, whether it be for glory, or merely a trip to next season’s Champions League.
Watch Manchester United vs. Ajax in the Europa League final, this Wednesday, May 24 at 2:30 p.m. EST on Fox Sports 1.