For a young Ajax side, this game is about pride and passion.
For Manchester United, however, this game has turned out to be a cynosure of a long and gruelling season of 64 competitive games. By encountering lengthy injury lists, packed fixture schedules, the unforgiving physical demands of the Premier League and trips to war-torn countries on freezing Thursday nights, manager Jose Mourinho has had to oversee one of Manchester United’s most challenging seasons yet.
The results have been mixed. Though Mourinho has guided the Red Devils to a major trophy in his first season at the helm with victory in the EFL Cup, he knows that nothing less than a place in next season’s Champions League – a stage where United have failed to put their foot on in two of the last three seasons – will render it a successful season for the Old Trafford faithful and the board of directors.
Having failed to secure qualification to Europe’s elite competition through the league standings, the showdown with the most successful club in Dutch football at the Friends Arena in Stockholm on Wednesday night is now critical for Manchester United, as the winners make a back-door entry into the Champions League group stages. Needless to say, the pressure is on the Portuguese to show that he was justified in his gamble to prioritise this competition over a 38-game league.
While Ajax’s flux of youth would have had 10 days of rest before kick-off at Stockholm, Manchester United come into the final just three days after their final Premier League game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. A comfortable victory in a game where most contenders to start the final were understandably rested at least gives Mourinho’s side the winning mentality needed to go into a game of this magnitude.
For Ajax, Europa League success merely gives them an upgrade from the Champions League Third Qualifying Round – which they qualified for thanks to their league position – to the group stages. For United, however, the entire season hinges on these 90 (possibly 120) minutes, as failure to lift the trophy condemns them back into the second tier of Europe’s cup hierarchy.
Will it be boom or bust for Jose Mourinho in his maiden season in charge of Manchester United?
Kick-off and Live Telecast
Date and Local Time: Wednesday, 24th May, 2045 Local Time
Venue: Friends Arena, Solna, Stockholm
Channels listings and Timings:
UK – BT Sport 2 – 1945 BST
USA – Fox Sports 1 – 1445 ET, 1145 PT
India – Ten 1 HD, Ten 2 – 0015 IST, Thursday
Kenya – Supersport – 2145 EAT
Nigeria – Supersport – 1945 WAT
UAE – beIN Sports Arabia – 2345 GST
Singapore – Eurosport – 0245 SGT, Thursday
Ajax have issues at left-back, with first-choice Nick Viergever suspended for the final owing to his red card in the second leg at Lyon and his 21-year old deputy Daley Sinkgraven doubtful with a knee injury. 20-year old Jairo Riedewald will fill up in that position should Sinkgraven fail to make the cut.
Manchester United’s injury issues have affected them throughout the season and it is no different going into the final. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – for whom this would have been a finale on home soil – will miss out as he recovers from a hyperextended knee he suffered during the quarter-final against RSC Anderlecht. Luke Shaw, Ashley Young, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Marcos Rojo are the other injury casualties.
Defender Eric Bailly is suspended courtesy of his moment of madness off the ball in the dying stages of the semi-final tie against Celta Vigo which earned him his marching orders. Chris Smalling and Marouane Fellaini are doubtful as they look to make comebacks from their injuries.
Probable starting line-ups
Ajax (4-3-3): Andre Onana; Joel Veltman, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Sinkgraven; Davy Klaasen, Lasse Schone, Hakim Ziyech; Bertrand Traore, Kasper Dolberg, Amin Younes
Manchester United (4-3-3): Sergio Romero; Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian; Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba; Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Though they conceded the league title to a Dirk Kuyt-inspired Feyenoord on the final day of the Eredivisie season, Ajax’s young guns have been in unstoppable form in the Europa League. The front three of Amin Younes, Kasper Dolberg and Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore have been fantastic throughout the Europa League season with goals, assists, dribbles and flick-ons aplenty.
19-year old Dolberg, in particular, is a major threat to United’s backline. He isn’t afraid to take on opposition players one-on-one and has the ability to create a chance out of nothing – unsettling defences with one touch back-flicks and making purposeful third-man runs.
Hakim Ziyech is an immense threat in midfield – both in open play and over a dead ball. His teasing crosses and dangerous-looking free-kicks and corners will be a stern test for United’s defenders, who have had man-marking issues when dealing with set-pieces.
The defending for Ajax is an issue, though. They nearly threw away a four-goal advantage in the first-half added time of the second leg against Lyon. Having conceded thrice, they looked vulnerable against the pace of Alexandre Lacazette.
They barely held on for six minutes following Viergever’s dismissal in the 84th minute and got out of jail at the end of the tie. On his day, Marcus Rashford can be as big a threat as Lacazette and the centre-half duo of Davinson Sanchez and Matthijs de Ligt will be circumspect of the teenager’s movement in the penalty area and ability to waltz past them with the ball.
Their form coming into the final has been impressive – they’ve netted 12 times in their last four competitive games – but will they go one step better than finishing runners-up in the league when they face the odds-on favourites to lift the Europa League?
Last 5 games (All Competitions): W-L*-W-W-L (Most Recent: Willem II 1-3 Ajax)
*Ajax lost 3-1 to Lyon in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final but went through 5-4 on aggregate
Manchester United ended the Premier League season with a routine victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday, giving breathers to multiple senior players and fielding youth academy graduates, some of whom were impressive. Mourinho gave 45-minute stints to Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Michael Carrick, all of whom are in the race to start the final.
In spite of being finalists, their cup form has been far from convincing. They came out unstuck against a brilliant Celta Vigo in the last four, advancing to the final by the skin of their teeth after John Guidetti failed to direct the ball into an empty net in what was the last kick of the game.
They had close shaves in the two previous rounds as well, needing extra-time to overcome Anderlecht in the quarter-final and relying on Sergio Romero’s brilliance in between the sticks to save them the blushes against Russian side Rostov in the Round of 16. Old Trafford has not exactly been a fortress this season and playing for the coveted prize away from Manchester is not the worst thing for them.
Jose Mourinho has blamed wholesale absentees and fatigue arising from an unforgiving schedule for United’s under-performances in the Europa League. But now that a majority of first-team players have been given a week’s off prior to this win-or-nothing clash, the 54-year old will demand nothing short of 100% from his players on Wednesday.
Will a 64-game season have the ultimate say on United’s professionals, or have they saved their best for last?
Last 5 games (All Competitions): W-D-L-D-L (Most Recent: Manchester United 2-0 Crystal Palace)
The sides have met in the Europa League before – a Round-of-32 tie in 2011-12, when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won 0-2 at the Amsterdam ArenA before going through on aggregate despite losing the return leg 1-2 at Old Trafford. Damir Skomina, who refereed the Old Trafford leg, will be the arbitrator for Wednesday’s final.
Ajax are winless in four Europa League knockout ties away from the Amsterdam ArenA (where they have a 100% win record) this season, while United are unbeaten away from Old Trafford at the competition’s similar stages.
Ajax’s probable front three of Bertrand Traore, Kasper Dolberg and Amin Younes have racked up 14 goals and 6 assists in the Europa League this season, compared to the 9 goals and 3 assists registered by United’s forward trio of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Dolberg has scored in each of Ajax’s last four games in all competitions.
Sergio Romero has kept a tournamant high 7 clean sheets from 11 appearances, while Ajax’s goalkeeper Andre Onana comes second with 6 clean slates from 13 appearances.
Hakim Ziyech has created 36 goal-scoring opportunities for Ajax in the Europa League this season, fifteen more than his counterpart in midfield Paul Pogba (21).
Kasper Dolberg vs Daley Blind
The 19-year old sensation will be given the license to have a go at a Bailly-less United defence, attracting opponents towards him and as a result, leaving space for his fellow forwards to exploit. Daley Blind’s responsibility is to ensure that he reads Dolberg's manoeuvres in and around the 18-yard box and organise his defence in the absence of Bailly (and possibly third-captain Chris Smalling) so that the teenager is prevented from running into pockets and opening up a goal-scoring chance.
Daley Blind’s leadership and communication at the back is absolutely critical if he has to stop his former club from getting a foothold in the game as far as front three are concerned. Blind will be aware that Dolberg is also an excellent poacher, very quick to react to a loose ball in the penalty area and stab it home. Michael Carrick may well have to operate as a third centre-back to help Blind during periods when Ajax commit bodies forward in attack.
Hakim Ziyech vs Ander Herrera
Ander Herrera’s season highlight was the manner in which he marked Eden Hazard and effectively made him a spectator when United beat the eventual champions at Old Trafford last month. He may well have to undergo the same job when he comes up against Moroccan Hakim Ziyech at Stockholm.
The 24-year old has sliced defences open with his excellent passing – be it to feed the widemen or through gaps in the middle of defences – to send the advancing men through on goal. He has a habit of cutting in from both flanks and locating his targets with pin-point crosses across the width of the pitch. Herrera’s role will be to deprive Ziyech of any space to make inroads and deliver the crosses for his team-mates to attack. Can the Spaniard deliver a man-marking job with the same conviction as he did against Hazard?
Mourinho will be wary of the pace and dribbling acumen the front trio possess. His gameplan will most likely be focussed on sitting back in the initial stages and counter their threat. He recognises the fact that frustration is bound to creep into the minds of youngsters when they don’t find the back of the net after a particular period of time. If United manage to keep them at bay for 45 minutes, one can expect them to take control of events in the second half by dominating the midfield and improving their chance creation.
Ajax’s near self-destruction in the second half at Lyon suggests that United will edge the latter stages of this game. Pogba’s role will be crucial in both halves of the pitch– defensively and offensively – as he prepares to operate in a free role.
However, despite dominating the statistics as far as possession and chance creation are concerned, United’s finishing has been below par all season. As a result, one can predict the game to go into extra-time and possibly, penalties. Given Sergio Romero’s excellent record when facing spot-kicks, United will have the upper hand if the game requires a shoot-out.
Ajax 1-1 Manchester United (AET), Manchester United to win on penalties.