This time of the year is a bit strange for football fans. The league seasons are finishing and this year there isn’t the lure of a major summer tournament to fall back on. Don’t get me wrong though; the finals of the UEFA club competitions are set to provide great entertainment.
Manchester United and Amsterdam are set for a showdown that will define whether their years have been successful. Peter Bosz has the chance to bring some real pride to the Netherlands and to show that the teams in the league are still competing to a very high standard. For Mourinho and United, a final win would mean Champions League qualification. Having failed to qualify through the Premier League, the Europa League final presents the last opportunity to join Europe’s elite club competition.
The English giants have never won this competition. More famously they have won the Champions’ League on three occasions; the last coming in 2008 when they beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. This is their second consecutive season competing in the Europa League and they were knocked out by historic rivals Liverpool last year. The 2017 Europa League final will be their first meeting with Ajax since 2012 in the same competition. After winning 2-0 in Amsterdam, United were shocked by a 1-2 reverse at home, but still managed to progress in the competition.
Route to the Final
They finished runners-up to Fenerbahce in a group that contained Eredivisie champions Feyenoord who they lost to in the first game of the competition at De Kuip as they struggled for form. However, they got their revenge at Old Trafford winning 4-0.
United comfortably beat Saint-Etienne in the round of 32 (4-0 on aggregate), before facing a tricky test against overachieving Rostov of Russia. Mourinho openly criticized the pitch in Russia prior to the first leg and United struggled to get into their rhythm. Such concerns were put to bed as they overcame their opponents by a single goal to nil at home.
Despite having an abundance of talent on show and being more accustomed to the Champions’ League, United started to struggle. The level of opposition was high and were providing real tests to Mourinho’s men. Anderlecht caused plenty of trouble with in both legs and looked equal to United in large spells of the games. It took an extra-time effort from Marcus Rashford to break the deadlock and send the home team through. The tough test had come at the cost of former Ajax striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who damaged his anterior cruciate ligament after an aerial challenge.
The semi-final against Celta Vigo provided an equally stern test for United; though they should have had the tie wrapped up after the first leg. As has been a problem all season they were wasteful in front of goal in Vigo. This could have come back to haunt the red devils when, in the final moments at Old Trafford, John Guidetti was presented with a great chance to send the Spanish side through. Beauvue inexplicably chose to cut the ball back to the former Feyenoord and Manchester City striker who couldn’t get a strong contact with the ball. The final whistle blew seconds later and United were through to the final in Stockholm.
Ajax’s recent history in Europe doesn’t make for pleasant reading and have been Europa League regulars, often qualifying through third-placed Champions’ League group stage finishes. Last season they were eliminated in the Europa League group stage having finished 3rd behind Molde and Fenerbahce.
Unlike their opponents, they have won this competition. In 1992, they beat Torino in a two-legged final on away goals after a 2-2 draw in Italy.
Route to the final
After finishing top of a group containing fellow semi-finalists Celta Vigo, Ajax progressed to face Legia Warsaw in the round of 32. The Polish side held firm at home and earned a 0-0 draw, but were unable to score as Ajax dominated the reverse fixture. Viergever scored to earn his team a place in the draw for the next round.
Unlike United, Ajax seemed to struggle moreso in the earlier knockout rounds of the competition. Copenhagen proved to be a tougher opponent than their Polish counterparts and took an advantage into their visit to Amsterdam as they won 2-1. Again the attacking prowess of Ajax enabled them to dominate. Traore and Dolberg scored before the break to put the Dutch side in control.
Schalke were up next. It was the first real test for Peter Bosz’s men who were determined to make their home ground a difficult place to visit. Ajax’s fast and aggressive attacking play proved a shock to the German’s who have struggled domestically this season. Despite possession being somewhat equal, the home side created far more opportunities in front of goal and it proved to be the calm influence of Davy Klaassen that was the difference as the captain scored twice.
The match in Gelsenkirchen provided everything a neutral would hope for in a cup match. Goals and drama were provided in abundance. Having perhaps underestimated the challenge of Ajax in the first leg, Schalke came out determined and levelled the tie on aggregate as they went 2-0 ahead and took the game to extra-time. The lead looked unassailable as Veltman had been sent off in the 80th minute. The challenge looked impossible when Caligiuri put Schalke 3-0 ahead in the 101st minute. However, there was another twist to come. Viergever scored an away goal in the second half of extra-time which meant the home side needed another to go through. As they pushed forward for that goal German winger Amin Younes hit them on the counter to secure victory for Ajax.
In the semi-finals, the Godenzonen drew Lyon. Once again the Amsterdam ArenA proved a difficult place to visit for the opposition as Ajax won 4-1. The tie looked all but over when Kasper Dolberg coolly chipped over the goalkeeper in France and extended the lead to 5-1 on aggregate. Lyon needed four to even take the game to extra-time.
They struck back through highly coveted striker Lacazette who scored twice just before half-time to swing the momentum. As the pressure built throughout the half, Ajax’s defence cracked as Ghezzal scored in the 81st minute. One of the heroes of Gelsenkirchen, Viergever was then sent off three minutes later. The pressure was racked up again, but Lyon ran out of time to get the fourth and Ajax confirmed their place in the final in Stockholm.
Undoubtedly the underdogs, it’s a pleasant surprise that Ajax have reached the final, but they’re a well drilled team unit. Bosz has the side playing quick, attacking football in the classic Dutch 4-3-3 formation. It is noticeable that he wants the team to play quickly as every set-piece and throw-in seems to be taken as soon as the ball is retrieved in an attempt to create an opportunity while the opposition hasn’t had a chance to reorganise.
They know their strengths. They have plenty of players who can score goals and have plenty of creativity. Their greatest weakness may be their inexperience; however, this may lead to a youthful confidence unhindered by self-doubt and perhaps the awareness that creeps in as a player ages.
Ajax are the team likely to provide most of the entertainment in this tie. Under Mourinho, United are set-up to be solid and are likely to continue that trend with Jones and Blind requiring some protection from the midfield. Ajax will need to be wary of the United threat on the counter. Rashford is electric and he’ll pose plenty of problems if the Ajax backline press high up the pitch. Both Herrera and Pogba possess the ability to hit defence-splitting through balls. Additionally, both are capable of scoring from outside the box.
The Eredivisie runners-up will need to play with the same quick tempo they have done in the previous rounds to cause United problems. Dolberg is likely to enjoy playing against a centre back pairing that is unfamiliar with each other. Jones hasn’t played much football this season and Blind, in my eyes, isn’t a natural in that position.
The match is most likely to be close and low-scoring like United’s previous rounds. United have experience on their side and Mourinho is a man for the big occasion. He has won 11 of the 13 cup finals he has competed in and has never lost in normal time. Ajax’s greatest challenge could almost be stated as the fact they aren’t playing at home; but their best chance will come if they play at a fast tempo and not let the United midfield settle on the ball.
When asked about his side’s chances earlier in the week and the prospect of facing £89m Paul Pogba, Mattijs de Ligt summed up that youthful confidence I alluded to earlier with his answer, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal”. Ajax will know they have a chance if they play to their potential.