Ajax v Man United - A classic European final between two giants of continental games

Simon Peach 14:11 23/05/2017
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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho (L) and Ajax coach Peter Bosz (R).

One heads into the Europa League showdown driven by expectation, the other hope brought by the latest batch of outrageously talented youngsters spewed out by their remarkable youth system.

For Jose Mourinho’s United, the Stockholm clash on Wednesday is make-or-break having flunked their top-four Premier League tilt.

Their only avenue to the riches of the Champions League is winning the Europa League – the only major trophy to have eluded them in their success-laden history.

United are looking to become just the fourth team to have won all three major UEFA trophies, including the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as the Club World Cup or the Intercontinental Cup, joining Bayern Munich, Juventus and Wednesday’s opponents Ajax.

While things have gone awry at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it hardly compares to the Dutch side’s struggles.

Constantly plundered for their best talent, continental success has become all too infrequent and this is Ajax’s first major European finals since winning the mid-1990s.

They won the Champions League in 1995 and finished runners-up the following year – matches that Edwin van der Sar was in goal for.

The giant Holland goalkeeper was also in net for United’s last continental success when they won the Champions League in 2008, before playing in both the 2009 and 2011 finals.

Van der Sar hung up his gloves after the latter and returned to Ajax, where he now works as chief executive.

“I think our philosophy is always trying to play football,” Van der Sar said ahead of facing his former club.

“That’s what we teach them when they come into our academy at seven or eight years old. Of course finals are always different than other games, but we’ve played against good teams this campaign. We are proud of the players and the remarkable rise of them.

“I am sure they are up for this match against United, who in the Premier League have struggled. In the Europa League they have made the final but not always been convincing.

“We know their qualities, their strengths and, of course, for the next couple of days we are going to have an in-depth look at how they are going to play and team up against us.”

Ajax have been able to focus on the final since their Eredivisie campaign ended on May 14, whereas United had two dead rubbers to contend with in the Premier League.

Mourinho continues to moan about their fixture pile-up and injuries, rotating the side with the Europa League final in mind.

“I am not interested in what Mourinho is doing,” Van der Sar told Sportsweek. I am chief executive at Ajax and my responsibility is Ajax and what Mourinho does or says he can do that himself.”

“We know how he is and he is very experienced as a manager at many big clubs, so he deals with the players and the club as he wishes.”

Van der Sar’s only goal is making Ajax a European force again, having been “away too long from the international podium”.

“Of course (it will be emotional), it is two clubs from your heart,” the former United goalkeeper said. “I am very happy with the opportunity that I’ve got here in Amsterdam.

“We’ve got a fantastic team around me – the same as being a goalkeeper, you need good defenders, you need a Ferdinand, you need a Neville, you need a Giggs on the wing, you need a Ronaldo, a Rooney up front, and a Carrick in the midfield.

“The same as our organisation at the club, I need a good commercial director, operational director and it’s leading a team again and making sure that we go forward and score and get goals that brings us the league or the final.

“We’re really looking forward to the 24th of May. It is a fantastic opportunity for us to show the world again that Ajax is back.”

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