The Premier League proved to be a step too far for Jose Mourinho but the Champions League prize which comes with victory over Ajax, will take Manchester United back to the big time. While Arsenal fell a point short of the top four and go into next season’s Europa League, United are providing Arsene Wenger’s men with the template to succeed.
Standing in their way are Ajax. Second in the Eredivisie, the Europa League represents the Dutch giants last chance of glory. It’s been twenty-one years since they reached a European final - the 1996 Champions League defeat against Juventus.
It’s a multi-million euro match; the winner feasts on the riches UEFA offer in the Champions League next year. For UEFA, having one of European football’s greatest names lift the Europa League adds kudos to a competition in need of a reputational boost.
Can United bring the glory days back? There’s a bit more than that at stake.
Finishing runners-up in the Eredivisie was a painful experience. Old foes PSV Eindhoven beat Ajax in the third-last game of the season, leaving the Amsterdam club waiting on their oldest foes, Feyenoord, to slip up. This is Ajax’s chance to steal the headlines and give Dutch football a much-needed boost.
The formbook is against them as far Europe is concerned; Ajax have not won in the last six away matches in the Europa League and came close to semi-final heartbreak with a 3 - 1 defeat in Lyon. That underlined their vulnerability; the 4 - 1 win at the Amsterdam Arena showed what they are capable of.
Kasper Dolberg, the club’s leading scorer with 23 goals this season, grabbed the decisive goal but Chelsea loanee, Bertrand Traore weighed in with a brace. Their forward line shouldn’t be underestimated; Ajax’s 225 shots on goal is the tournament’s best this season; the 95 which were on target holds a similar record.
They are prepared to battle as well. 208 fouls is the most conceded while 45 yellows and 4 red cards are the worst disciplinary record in the Europa League.
Any sense that this is a case of United just turning up is misplaced. Ajax’s misfortune in the Dutch league is their inspiration for this match. United would do well to bear that in mind.
Jose Mourinho rotated Manchester United’s squad heavily in the week’s ahead of this match, and their form suffered as a consequence. Two wins, two draws and two defeats in the six games ahead of this final.
It still doesn’t bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic back and while Marcus Rashford finds the goalscoring burden on his shoulders. His youthful enthusiasm is well and good but the mercurial Swede possesses the x-factor to make a difference in these kinds of matches.
Nonetheless, United’s durability is beyond question. After the 0 - 4 defeat at Chelsea, Mourinho masterminded an unbeaten run which last until Arsenal beat them at the Emirates in May. Too many draws to win the title or finish in the top four, the dogged defence will be the foundation upon victory in Solna on May 24th.
United’s early performances in the competition weren’t convincing, nor was the home leg against Celta. The true cost of Eric Bailly’s dismissal at Old Trafford in the second leg will be clear in Sweden.
Away from home, United’s form has improved considerably since the defeats against Feyenoord and Fenerbahce. Three wins and two draws put them in strong positions for the home legs of their respective ties.
Paul Pogba will be pivotal. The world’s most expensive player for a few more weeks yet, the Frenchman has grown in importance to United, along with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The pair will be expected to rise to the occasion in a manner befitting their transfer fees.
The question for Mourinho is whether Wayne Rooney has a part to play. United’s leading goalscorer is little more than a bit-part player these days but this is his opportunity to bow out in style.
FORM (Last six games)
Manchester United - WLDLDW
Ajax - WLWWLW
- Fulham are the only English club side to win a match referee Damir Skomina has officiated (W1, D3, L3).
- Manchester United haven’t won an away match against a Dutch side since beating PSV 2 - 1 in 1997 (L3).
- Ajax haven’t won an away game in Europe in seven (D3, L3).
- Manchester United are unbeaten in ten Europa League games (W7, D3).
- Ajax are top scorers in this season’s Europa league, with a conversion rate of 25% of their shots on target.
CURRENT MATCH ODDS (BEST PRICED ODDS)
HEAD TO HEAD
Last six meetings
Date Competition Result
23.02.2012 Europa League Manchester United 1 - 2 Ajax
16.02.2012 Europa League Ajax 0 - 2 Manchester United
29.09.1976 European Cup Manchester United 2 - 0 Ajax
15.09.1976 European Cup Ajax 1 - 0 Manchester United
Ajax are part of an elite group of clubs who have won all of UEFA’s club competitions; United will join them if they win in the Friends Arena. While they are the favourites, Ajax are capable of pulling off a ‘shock’ win.
Both sides are desperate for European success this season. Domestically, they have been outmaneuvered by rivals. However, for both, winning this trophy represents a return to European glory which would lift their campaigns and imbue both with a sense of optimism for 2017-18.
United though, are managed by one of football’s winners. Jose Mourinho will structure the side to negate Ajax and few are better at this in the modern game. That will be the difference between the two sides.