AJAX V MANCHESTER UNITED. The very sound of it is enticing. Two European names with a rich history. Cruyff, Best, Neeskens, Rep, Charlton, Law, Giggs…the list goes on. Seven UEFA Champions League titles between them, the best supported teams in the Netherlands and England, two sporting institutions that have been a major influence on world football. What’s not to enthuse about for this Stockholm showdown?
Well, there’s the past. The current Ajax and United sides struggle to live with the history of the clubs. Ajax finished their domestic season in second place, one point behind fierce rivals Feyenoord. They lost just three times in the Eredivisie, the most recent a 1-0 defeat at PSV Eindhoven which effectively cost them the title. Coach Peter Bosz has a young team that has yet to be fully recognised across Europe, but the final could just spark off interest in a number of their star players.
Ajax’s top scorer in the Eredivisie was Danish striker Kasper Dolberg. He’s just 19 and like many of Ajax’s Danish recruits, he was discovered by John Steen Olsen. Dolberg is valued at around £ 20m and has been called the “new Zlatan” by his admirers. He’s scored 16 goals in the league and six in the Europa this season.
Davy Klaassen is more well known that Dolberg and has also been valued at £20m by Ajax. At 24, he’s ripe for a move to a bigger club and Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton have all shown an interest in him.
The other man to watch is on-loan striker Bertrand Traore, who has developed into an all-round talent since joining from Chelsea. He’s still only 21 and after an excellent season in Amsterdam, Chelsea will be watching. Ajax also have a young defence and goalkeeper, something which plays to the very ethos at the club. Their last great side won the Champions League in 1995 with a collection of youngsters that went on to make their mark across the continent.
Manchester United ended the Premier League season in sixth place. They lost just five games – as many as Chelsea, the champions – but they lacked goals and the killer instinct, drawing 15 of their 38 games. Nobody drew as many games as Jose Mourinho’s United team.
United won the Football League Cup and reached the last eight of the FA Cup. Whether their leading scorer, Ibrahimovic will be fit to face Ajax (one of his old clubs) remains to be seen. He has hinted that he will be fit, but one assumes that Mourinho will keep his cards close to his chest. It looks as though Wayne Rooney won’t start in Stockholm, indeed by the time the teams run out, he may have announced his plans for the future.
As for United, many people expect a more concerted challenge for the title next season. Mourinho probably sees 2016-17 as a prelude to bigger things and if United win in Stockholm, they can look forward to a return to the Champions League.
United have been very focused on the competition without over-impressing. They won four of their group games but lost 1-0 at Feyenoord and 2-1 at Fenerbahce. In the knockout stage, they disposed of St. Etienne, Rostov and Celta Vigo, but tellingly, in the last three rounds, they only just squeezed past their opponents.
Ajax, by contrast, have been making a noise in Europe. In their group, they finished ahead of Celta Vigo, Standard Liege and Panathinaikos. In the round of 32, they beat Legia Warsaw, FC Copenhagen, Schalke and Lyon. Their performances against Schalke and Lyon raised awareness of the quality of some of their youngsters.
No matter how good both United and Ajax might have been in reaching this season’s final, the heritage factor always makes it hard for those players wearing the club’s colours. In Ajax’s case, there is a growing feeling that we might be about to witness a very decent team taking shape – one that likes to attack. Unfortunately, that will inevitably mean that their best players will be sold to clubs in England, Germany or elsewhere. It is something that Ajax have become very adept at doing. United may also be on the cusp of a new era. Rooney looks set to leave, Mourinho will surely sign more players in his own image and Zlatan was only ever a short-term fix, however brilliant he can be.
Game of the People will be in Stockholm to report on the UEFA Europa League final. Our tip, a narrow win for Ajax. And with that, we shall pay homage to the eternal number 14…