Final Preview: Ajax vs Man United
Europa League: Manchester United set sights on Champions League qualification
Manchester United will look to return to UEFA Champions League with a victory over Ajax Amsterdam in UEFA Europa League finals on Wednesday night.
The prospect of winning a European title ought to seduce United but, as only lifting the trophy will guarantee them a place in the Champions League, Jose Mourinho and co. will be desperate to emerge victors at The Friends Arena in Stockholm.
United have embarked on a bizarre season, lifting Community Shield and EFL Cup, finishing six points behind fifth-placed Arsenal in sixth, going 25 games unbeaten in the Premier League, having the third worst scoring record amongst the top-half sides, and boasting the second best defensive record in the division. In spite of these, winning the Europa League would further Jose Mourinho’s credentials as a pragmatist.
Although they managed to lure world beaters last summer despite their not playing Champions League football, they may not be able to repeat the feat in the coming transfer window. To remain a European superpower, they will need to win the trophy they have never won – the Coupe UEFA.
Ajax, on the other hand, have already qualified for the next edition’s Champions League having finished second in Eredivisie. However, the Europa League final presents them the opportunity to bypass the qualifying rounds.
Given the attractive brand of football Ajax’s young guns play, they will likely unsettle the depleted United defence when they have possession. However, given United’s tendency to rise to the occasion and Mourinho’s penchant for winning cup finals, they will need luck on their side to win their first European trophy in 22 years.
Road to Stockholm
United finished second in Group A that comprised Fenerbahce (table toppers), Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk. They edged past Saint-Etienne, FK Rostov, RSC Anderlecht and Celta Vigo in the knockout stages to reach the finals. Only Fenerbahce and Feyenoord claimed their scalp as they now remain undefeated in 10 Europa League games.
Ajax finished top of Group G that also featured Celta Vigo, Standard Liege and Panathinaikos as they remained unbeaten in group stages. They muscled their way through Legia Warszawa, Copenhagen, Schalke 04 and Lyon in the subsequent stages, with the latter three handing them defeats in the away fixtures.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw will all miss the crucial clash through injuries. Eric Bailly will not feature having received red card in the second-leg of their semi-finals with Celta de Vigo. Chris Smalling and Marouane Fellaini need late assessment.
Ajax gaffer Peter Bosz has fewer injury concerns as only Daley Sinkgraven is sidelined with an injury. Besides, Netherlands international defender Nick Viergever is suspended on the back of his red card against Olympique Lyonnais.
- Jose Mourinho has won every game he has played against Ajax as a manager, with his sides scoring 20 as opposed to Ajax’s two (W6 D0 L0).
- Ajax have not won a European title in over two decades. They last won the Champions League in 1995, ousting AC Milan.
- Ajax have won 10 of their 14 European competition finals while United have won only six of 11 such fixtures.
- Only Ajax, Juventus, Chelsea and Bayern Munich have won every UEFA club trophy there is to win; a United win on Wednesday night will make them the fifth team to do so.
Player to watch
Paul Pogba made the questionable decision to depart Champions League hopefuls and Serie A title winners Juventus in favour of a return to his boyhood club United. However, whether he made a bad decision will be based off whether United return to the Champions League next season. Against a side whose average age is 22.7, the French international will look to produce a performance that not only guarantees the Old Trafford side Champions League football, but also justifies his price tag.