Manchester United and Ajax are set to lock horns in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
Once heavyweights of the game, Manchester United and Ajax have seen their fortunes dwindle into mediocrity. Two sides with a rich history and a huge fan following across the world are set to compete for European club football’s second-highest honour.
While the club from England have been the favourites since a host of big names from the competition were eliminated in the Round of 32 and 16, they cannot underestimate the threat Ajax’s fledgling outfit can pose as they are looking to pull off their greatest result of the century.
United go into this contest with the advantage of experience, and arguably boast a strong and a deeper squad that on its day can make the strongest of sides look meek. However, it hasn’t quite worked out for them this season.
Still, on the back of a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace in the league on Sunday, they go into the Europa League final high on confidence, hoping to return to the Champions League.
In their way are a determined Ajax side looking to make a name for themselves on the European stage. They possess a squad so heavily bolstered by youth, that at 25 years of age, Joel Veltman is a veteran with over 150 senior appearances, while Davy Klassen, a 24-year-old, captains the side.
Leading the line is a certain Dutch sensation that has taken the entire continent by storm, despite having only turned 19 last October. He goes by the name of Kasper Dolberg, and has already seen the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea show an avid interest in him.
Any club looking to bolster their attacking ranks will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on this Dutchman who made his international debut only a month after turning 19. He has 23 goals and 8 assists to his name in all competitions this season, and is Ajax’s very own Marcus Rashford.
Hakim Ziyech moved to the Amsterdam Arena at the very end of the transfer window, and has become one of the key figures in the way Ajax have been playing this season. He recently had the game of his career against Lyon in the first leg, where he provided three assists.
Every successful team needs a solid man at the back to strengthen the defence, and the Dutch side have one in Davinson Sanchez. Convincing the Colombian to join the club was no ordinary task as they had to beat Barcelona to secure his services.
Since joining the Dutch club, the 20-year-old has grown from strength to strength, and has become one of the main men at the back for Ajax. He is exceptional at winning the ball back, and his timing of the tackle is one of the best of the players the Eredivisie has on offer.
Although they have an array of phenomenal youngsters in their ranks, it takes an equally good manager to bring the best out of the team, and de Godenzonen have a master tactician in the form of Peter Bosz.
There was increasing scepticism at the Dutchman’s appointment as he replaced Frank de Boer, who had won the league in each of his first four seasons at the club, despite falling short on his last two attempts.
Thus, the club hierarchy made the decision to relieve de Boer of his services, and appointed the former Heracles and Vitesse manager Bosz to take over. It wasn’t well received with the fans initially as Bosz formerly represented Ajax’s rivals Feyenoord.
There were also doubts about his managerial abilities as he hadn’t coached a club of the stature of Ajax, and more so, wasn’t a part of the system like his predecessors were.
However, with a few key signings and a plethora of talented youth players to chop and choose from, Bosz slowly began to win over the trust of the fans, and the players reciprocated to his motivations by putting showcasing superlative performances week in and week out.
He began to get the squad thinking in a different manner, and eradicated the tag of a “small club” when it came to European competitions. Almost a year on from his arrival, a side that lost to Rostov in the Champions League qualifiers, are now on the brink of winning the Europa League.
In the recent past, the Ajax sides have lacked the hard hitting flair players that can put up an attacking showpiece, and outscore their opponents. The Dutch side have looked a lot more meeker and cagey, and it was time that it was put to an end.
The Ajax of old were known to play an attacking brand of football, and Bosz brought back that mentality to the club. He sidelined players that were not good enough for his system, and it has heaped heavy rewards.
The Dutch coach believes in the winning the ball back immediately after losing possession, and calls it the “five second rule.” In an interview with the Guardian, Bosz explained:
“The five-second rule is something that if you lose the ball, this is the best moment to get the ball back again. The opponent needs more or less five seconds to get in the right positions. We have to get it back right away.”
The Ajax coach absolutely has no time for negative football and has taken inspiration from Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola to play in a certain way. He believes that the only way to win is by attacking the opposition goal, and putting them under intense pressure.
However, he hasn’t dramatically changed the way Ajax play. Possession football is still the name of the game for de Godenzonen, and they still continue to build from the back. What’s changed is that Bosz’ side play with a higher tempo, and their football is more pleasing to the eye.
The capability to break English hearts?
The beautiful game is full of fairy tales, and Ajax’s triumph over Manchester United could undoubtedly be the story of the season. It is fair to say that the footballing neutrals will be cheering for the Dutch side on Wednesday.
Only weeks after fielding the youngest ever Eredivisie side, “Bosz’ Babes” are on the cusp of doing the unthinkable, and winning Ajax’s first European title since over two decades.
They may not possess players in their ranks who have experienced winning silverware on the continental stage, but they certainly have a robust and cohesive unit, that will go into the finale with nothing to lose.
United are set to miss the services of Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Zlatan Ibrahimovic through injury, while Eric Bailly will sit out the final through suspension. Marouane Fellaini also remains a major doubt as he missed United’s game against Palace on Sunday.
Also, the Red Devils have been far from convincing this season, and Ajax go into this one with every chance of picking up the right result and breaking the hearts of Manchester United fans that are eagerly awaiting their return to the Champions League.