Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One night to shine in Sweden

One night to shine in Sweden.
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL 2017

Manchester United v Ajax

Friends Arena, Stockholm 19:45 GMT

The heat appears to be on Manchester United tonight, or more specifically Jose Mourinho.

The club is bigger and richer than Ajax and demands success so winning the Europa League against a lesser side is expected at boardroom level.

Louis Van Gaal was given two years and did not deliver so was sacked, Mourinho is well aware.

But the so-called special one has so far failed to apply his Midas touch to the Red Devils since arriving last summer and has even managed to finish lower than Louis Van Gaal did during his two-year reign at Old Trafford.

Mourinho has jettisoned any humour or wit in the past few weeks for earnest seriousness as he has homed in on the Stockholm final for his make-or-break 90 minutes this season.

Fielding below-strength sides should in a perfect world incur a penalty but sympathy for the logic of the manager's stance is axiomatic.

The former Champions League and Europa League winner is clearly under tremendous pressure to win in Stockholm so we can cut him some slack.

Man Utd shelled out a fortune last summer, not least £89 million on Paul Pogba from Juventus, yet have failed to qualify for the Champions League from the Premier League.

Despite their youth, Ajax have been the far more impressive team in the knock-out stages, winning big with an elan and fluency the Man U fans can only remember wistfully after the error-strewn David Moyes era, two years of possession-marinating under Van Gaal and another fitful, stuttering season this time around.

Then to cap it all, United players have been dropping like flies to injury. Were centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo as well as former Ajax striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the field, one would surely tip the English side to overcome the Dutch one.

Yet the now the outcome hangs decidedly in the balance.

Have no doubt,  despite their injury headaches, Man U's pre-match analysts have been working long into the night with Mourinho to hatch a plan to defeat Ajax.

United have lumbered through the lesser of UEFA's two big club competitions winning few admirers with their lone-goal aggregate victories while failing to provide any rousing victories for their home supporters.

Mourinho is well-known for putting results before style however and as a master tactician for the big occasion he is probably without comparison, but this winner-takes-all tie is his biggest test yet.

In United's favour of course is their superior experience, a factor boosted by Ajax's near collapse in their semi-final second leg when they scraped through 5-4 on aggregate having led 4-1 from the first leg.

At their best this young Amsterdam side look irresistible, as in their home wins over Schalke and Lyon. The club best known for valuing style over results tonight meets the manager proud to preach the opposite.

Memories inevitably hark back to the glorious kids of 1995 who won the European Cup, but that side and its system was quite regimented as befitted its coach Van Gaal, a man who clashed with Johan Cruyff and his footballing philosophies.

Ajax's current manager Peter Bosz however takes his cue from his mentor Johan Cruyff's desire to let flare into the equation.

Patrick Kluivert who scored the '95 winner is back in the form of his son Justin, while Edwin Van der Sar and Marc Overmars are part of the back-room staff alongside Dennis Bergkamp and Winston Bogarde.

Will this side of starlets go the same way as the '95 outfit and be cherry-picked by bigger, richer European sides than Ajax?

Danish teenage striker Kasper Dolberg, Colombian centre-back Davinson Sanchez and midfielders Davy Klaasen and Hakim Ziyech are already firmly on the radar of other teams.

Perhaps then the pressure is just as much on Ajax tonight as after over twenty years of restructuring, internecine disputes and struggle, the club has finally reached another European final.

If they win, the lure of the Champions League may be enough to keep their side intact. Lose, and another wonderful Dutch dynasty could be over just as it was getting started.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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