Two of football’s most romantic clubs will collide this Wednesday, with the first European honour of the season at stake. From Totaalvoetbol and the Busby Babes to Cantona and Cruyff, the histories of Manchester United and Ajax are lathered in parallel mythology, yet this week’s UEFA Europa League Final will only be the fifth time the clubs have crossed paths, having previously won two apiece. With the Amsterdammers making a welcome return to Europe’s top table after over two decades in the wilderness, hopes will be high in Holland that Peter Bosz’s team can rubber-stamp their revival with a first UEL trophy since 1992 (when contested as the UEFA Cup). Meanwhile, United have never won the Europa League in any of its incarnations, with the programme for their recent home game with Lyon depicting the prize as the literal final piece in a jigsaw. Can Jose Mourinho ensure United complete the set? All that is certain is tears will flow in one canal city by the time Wednesday night is over.
Battle of attrition
The road to the Europa League Final has been grueling to say the least, with over 18,000 hours of football completed across the tournament and the finalists playing 14 times apiece. With Sevilla relinquishing the chance to defend their crown for the third successive season, either Ajax skipper Davy Klassen or United captain Wayne Rooney will be next to get their hands on the famous old trophy, though neither of this season’s finalists have been handed an easy route to this point. For Ajax, negotiating a tricky group home to Celta Vigo, Standard Liege and Panathinaikos might have been viewed as a success, but their journey was only beginning and the Dutchmen would go onto to pick off Legia Warsaw, Copenhagen, Schalke and finally Lyon; each of them beaten by a single aggregate goal. United meanwhile would be toppled twice in the group stage, but recovered to advance as runners-up, seeing off Saint-Etienne, before edging a run of tight encounters with Rostov, Anderlecht and Celta. With both clubs experiencing domestic disappointment at the end of their league seasons, Wednesday offers the chance to finish on quite the high… with few grander stages to sign off on.
Solna’s Friends Arena will play host to this year’s showpiece; the first to be played on Swedish soil since 2003-04, when Valencia prevailed over Marseille in Gothenburg. Opened in 2012, the Solna stadium sits just north of Stockholm’s city centre and is expected to welcome Dutch and English supporters in their droves for this annual highlight of the European footballing calendar. Among their number, at least one United supporters’ group will be toasting their fortune as well as their faith in their team, having daringly snapped up their low-cost travel and accommodation almost a full year in advance. Sadly, any thoughts of the final being a fairy-tale homecoming for United’s super Swede Zlatan Ibrahimović were cruelly dashed by injury in the quarter-final win over Anderlecht, ensuring the towering frontman’s role on the evening will be limited to one of interested spectator. In a trivia note, while United have never played at Friends Arena prior to this week, Matt Busby’s celebrated side did enjoy a run-out at its predecessor Råsunda Stadium, contesting a 1-1 draw with Djurgården in 1964.
Youth gone wild
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic to come out of the semi-finals was the youthfulness of the Ajax squad; with the side that saw out the second leg possessing an average age of only 20. Among a host of young guns in their arsenal, teenager Kasper Dolberg has already enjoyed a 20-goal season, netting six times in European competition, despite not even being born at the time of Ajax’s last continental final. Younger still is teammate Justin Kluivert, the son of striker Patrick, who famously claimed the club’s winner in the 1995 UCL finale. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Danish midfielder Lasse Schöne is the team’s reluctant veteran; an Eredivisie mainstay who will no doubt be looking to celebrate his upcoming 31st birthday with a maiden Europa League winners’ medal. In the opposing dressing room meanwhile, much responsibility may rest on the shoulders of United’s Marcus Rashford, in the absence of ex-Ajax hitman Ibrahimović. For Rashford, a goal in Wednesday’s final would symbolically bring his career to date full circle, with the fledgling forward handed his senior debut in the same competition last season by former United and Ajax supremo Louis van Gaal.
While the likes of Riijkaard, van Basten, Bergkamp and de Boer continue to resonate widely, few names are more synonymous with AFC Ajax than that of Danny Blind. Arriving in Amsterdam from Eredivisie rivals Sparta Rotterdam, defender Blind was a relatively unproven commodity, but would quickly develop into a crucial part of one of the greatest Ajax teams in history. After missing the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Lokomotiv Leipzig, Blind would captain the Amsterdammers to UEFA Cup success against Torino in 1992, prior to leading his troops to the ultimate honour of Champions League glory some three years later. Today, the Blind legacy lives on in the form of son Daley, who, having been rested for the Premier League visits to Arsenal and Southampton and the season-ending win over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, is expected to start for Manchester United in Wednesday’s final encounter. Having made over 100 appearances in Ajax colours before crossing the North Sea in 2014, Blind is already well on his way to completing his Manchester United club century and will look to cap his strongest season in England to date with his first continental honour.
As well as one of football’s most elusive major trophies, Wednesday’s one-off final sees a coveted position in next season’s Champions League at stake. With the Premier League route throwing up a roadblock, nothing less than victory would see United entered into next year’s tournament; their first for three seasons. Conversely, as runners-up in Holland’s Eredivisie, Ajax are already guaranteed to enter the UCL next campaign, from the third qualifying round. Should they win the final on Wednesday however, the Dutchmen instead would take the group stage berth that either Juventus or Real Madrid will vacate shortly, with either the Serie A or La Liga champions destined to enter next season’s competition as UCL holders. Ajax’s victory would additionally open the door for Nice of France’s Ligue 1 (the stage’s highest-ranked entrants) to progress straight into 2017-18′s final qualifying round, effectively evening the numbers. Opportunities await next season; but this Wednesday sees two famous clubs with the opportunity to seize the day. Who will be the 2017 UEFA Europa League champions? AC