Man Utd go into their Europa League final against Ajax knowing a lot more than one piece of silverware is at stake. They have finished outside the top four and have put all their eggs into this basket when it comes to qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Man Utd can still attract top players without Champions League football, as the deals for Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer showed, but missing out on a place at Europe’s top table next season could deter some stars from joining Jose Mourinho’s revolution.
Man Utd are being linked with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Neymar and Gareth Bale and that is thrilling for Man Utd fans because they are some of the best forwards in the world. But they have all enjoyed playing regularly in the latter stages of the Champions League at their Spanish clubs, and if they leave it will be to improve their careers, not go backwards. Griezmann will want to finally win some big trophies after being the bridesmaid so frequently being the bridesmaid at Atletico, while Neymar and Bale might be looking for World Player of the Year honours in stepping out of the giant shadows of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You can only really do that by thriving in the Champions League.
There is a lot riding on this game against Ajax then, but there are many reasons for Man Utd fans to be positive. For one, the bookmakers think it should be a comfortable victory for Mourinho’s men. Before placing a bet check out a list of trusted betting websites and you will see that they all have Man Utd between 2/5 and 1/2 to lift the trophy, while Ajax are out at 15/8. Man Utd have been the favourites throughout the season, and any teams that might have given them a real run for their money – Tottenham, Roma – have been eliminated. All that stands between Utd and glory is an Ajax team full of promise, but light on experience.
Peter Bosz’s side have reached the final despite playing with an average age of 22. They have some exciting young players, like centre-half Davinson Sanchez, Danish forward Kasper Dolberg and a Justin Kluivert, son of the great Patrick Kluivert, but they are a long way from being the finished article. They were pipped to the Dutch title by Feyenoord and only reached the Europa League final on the strength of their home performances. In the last 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals, they lost their away games each time but scraped through on aggregate thanks to the strength of their home performances. A 3-1 defeat to Lyon away was their last result in the competition, but they went through 5-4 on aggregate. Away from their own stadium, in a neutral venue in Sweden, the may struggle.
And Utd – despite the loss of Ibrahimovic to injury – should have the experience to get the better of Ajax. The amount of money that has been lavished on this squad in recent years is something Ajax could only dream of. Pogba alone cost more than the Ajax squad put together. Before they started fielding reserve teams in the league to conserve energy for this final, Utd were on a long and very impressive unbeaten run because Mourinho has them well-drilled and they are very difficult to break down. They will not yield many chances in this final. Mourinho is also a master of knockout competitions and will have done his research and will set his side up to thwart Ajax at every turn. In Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, Utd have plenty of goals and lots of creativity, so they should find the back of the net in this game. It is clear, however, that a serious amount of reinforcements are needed to mount a proper Premiership challenge next season, so Utd fans will have to hope the team can get the job done in Stockholm.