EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Wednesday's Europa League final from Stockholm.
Ajax v Manchester United | Wednesday 19:45 | BT Sport
Manchester United play their 64th and final fixture of the 2016/17 campaign on Wednesday night with Jose Mourinho’s men facing Ajax in what’s now become a season-defining showdown for the Red Devils.
Champions League qualification is the bare minimum requirement for the most expensively assembled squad in history and Mourinho has gambled United’s season on winning the Europa League; should his charges fall short in Stockholm, his first year in charge must be deemed a colossal failure.
The Friends Stadium encounter looks set to be a clash of styles between Ajax's vibrant attacking play, and Mourinho's characteristic caution. It’s not far off being a Beauty and the Beast contest and the romance hasn’t been lost on the Dutch underdogs.
The Europa League final will be played exactly 22 years to the day after Ajax claimed their last European trophy by beating Milan in the 1995 Champions League final. And in reaching Stockholm, the Amsterdammers became the first Dutch club to make it to a continental final since Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup in 2002.
Ajax rolling back the years
When Frank de Boer departing the club after five-and-a-half-years at the end of 2015/16, Peter Bosz was quickly installed as the capital club’s new head coach.
The Amsterdam outfit had just been edged out of the Dutch title race by the tightest of margins and were in need of a pick me up. Despite enjoying a player career away from club, Bosz’s admiration of the Ajax school was well-known and his reputation as a forward-thinking boss appealed.
Bosz even travelled to Amsterdam as a Feyenoord player to watch and learn from Louis van Gaal's training sessions and his commitment for bold – at times, reckless – and dynamic football was a big turn-on for a club that had begun implementing the “Velvet Revolution” when Johan Cruyff took over in 2011.
The traditional Cruyffian values of youth development and playing the “Ajax way” may have taken time to come to fruition but boy, have Ajax bounced back in style since Bosz has bedded in.
Young guns going forward
This Ajax team has captured the hearts of Europa League fans through a series of thrilling performances. The Dutch dynamos completed an incredible last-ditch extra-time turnaround in Schalke in the quarter-finals despite being reduced to 10 men in the 80th minute and were magnificently gung-ho in seeing off Lyon.
The average age of their first XI during the 4-1 semi-final win over Lyon was just 21.8. In fact, only nine (35%) of their 26-man squad were born when the club won the Champions League in 1995 meaning 17 (65%) of the roster are 22 or younger.
The fearlessness of youth could hand this ultra-attacking team an advantage and their fluid 4-3-3 formation – featuring young forwards – Bertrand Traore, Amin Younes, and Kasper Dolberg – could cause United plenty of problems down the flanks where Ajax look to isolate opposition full-backs.
Indeed, Ajax’s most prominent source of chance creation is via crosses into the box whilst Hakim Ziyech’s role pushing up from midfield to operate almost as a number 10 behind Dolberg allows an overload through the centre, often befuddling defences.
Ajax’s intense pressing game
Due to the glittery array of forward-thinking gems, Ajax’s aggressive gegenpressing can often be ignored or overlooked. It certainly shouldn’t.
The underdogs’ intense pressing game in which players swarm around opponents, following Bosz's “three-second” rule, which challenges players to win the ball back within that amount of time before then dropping back into a rigid defensive shape, can be mesmeric at times.
But could they be caught out against a United side that will be happy to sit deep, look to frustrate and strike on the break?
Mourinho’s men will fancy their chances of exploiting Ajax’s defensive shortcomings. Should the Red Devils sit back, they should be able to restrict space for their youthful opponents to attack, something Lyon failed to do.
And it won’t have been missed that Bosz's trio of forwards rarely track back, leaving Ajax exposed in wide areas. In fact, three of the four goals Ajax conceded against Lyon came from crosses, and on each occasion, there was a conspicuous absence of cover in wide positions.
Lyon had 37 shots on goal over the two legs; United are not as attack-minded as the Ligue 1 outfit, but they will surely have enough firepower to take advantage of such space, especially so with Ajax lacking a solid defensive midfielder.
The Dutch giants were ruthless at the Amsterdam Arena, churning out seven wins from seven en-route to Stockholm but managed a sole success in seven away days in this competition, faltering on their travels.
It’s also worth noting, Bosz’s men squeezed past FC Copenhagen following a first leg reverse in Denmark and were rather tame when overcoming Legia Warsaw in their first knockout tie.
A run of three losses in six across all competitions appears poor but like United, Ajax had one eye on the trophy whilst the Eredivisie title appeared out of reach until late on. Previously the club had suffered one reverse in 20 outings.
The underdogs arrive after 10 days of rest and have suffered only eight defeats in 53 fixtures across the campaign but are missing the suspended Nick Viergever. Matthijs de Ligt should partner Davinson Sanchez at the heart of the defence.
Man Utd’s form
The Red Devils often flattered to deceive on their way to the final and were somewhat fortunate to secure their place having come close to coming unstuck against Celta Vigo in the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford.
Mourinho frequently insisted over the past few weeks that this final takes full priority over Premier League commitments and so league form has faltered in their quest to secure Champions League qualification via the Europa League route.
Failure to win 10 of their past 15 games has to concern favourite backers here, as would United’s penchant for draws – 17 across all competitions this term – and Eric Bailly’s suspended. But whilst the side has not played with any great verve, they have been resilient.
The Red Devils are unbeaten in 10 European matches (W6-D4-L0), did go 25 games unbeaten in the Premier League earlier this season and only Spurs lost fewer matches this term. And the Mourinho factor must also be considered – he’s won 11 of 13 major cup finals.
The betting angles
History suggests this tie will be settled in 90 minutes – extra-time has occurred in just six of the past 16 Europa League/UEFA Cup finals with only two being decided by a penalty shootout.
And with 10 of the past 12 Europa League finals were won by the pre-match favourites and it’s hard to argue with 10/11 (Betfair) quotes on Manchester United claiming top honours here on Wednesday night.
Mourinho’s experienced and tactically-disciplined outfit should have the edge in a one-off knockout contest but I’m not too keen to get involved in such quotes. If Ajax do go down, I don’t expect the Dutch starlets to go quietly.
The underdogs have kept only two clean sheets in 12 matches but have scored in 13 of their previous 14 Europa League ties and I’d be surprised if they didn’t get on the scoresheet here.
Immediately that opens up the Both Teams To Score market and the 23/20 (Betfair) available is more than fair. It was a profitable punt in eight of Ajax’s nine away European encounters this season.
Under 2.5 Goals is a little on the skinny side at 8/11 (Marathon) but seeing as eight of Mourinho’s 13 previous cup finals have featured fewer than three goals over the 90 minutes, may appeal.
With United seeing each of their last seven Europa League ties ending either 1-0 or 1-1 and seven of Ajax’s eight before their semi-final duels with Lyon also paying-out in the Under 2.5 Goals market, it certainly has strong claims.
Ajax v Manchester United – Both Teams To Score (23/20 Betfair)