Ajax fall short as United claim Europa League Crown

UEFA Europa League

A defensively-masterful Manchester United dispatched of a young Ajax Amsterdam in Stockholm on Wednesday, 2-0, thanks to goals from midfield ace Paul Pogba and winger Henrik Mkhitaryan. Ajax largely controlled the ball throughout the 90 minutes, but United struck where it hurt when they got the chances.

Coming in with an average age of 22, the Ajax squad were no doubt the underdogs. This isn’t to say they were written off, however, as the likes of Kasper Dolberg, Davinson Sánchez, and Hakim Ziyech were sure to give the Red Devils a run for their money. United’s starting lineup quite controversially didn’t include Anthony Martial or David De Gea, but José Mourinho came to Stockholm with a plan and he stuck to it well. Towering midfielder Marouane Fellaini came in to disrupt the middle of the park with his aerial prowess, and young striker Marcus Rashford was sure to carve out chances with his pace on the counter-attack.

Coming in with an average age of 22, the Ajax squad were no doubt the underdogs. This isn’t to say they were written off, however, as the likes of Kasper Dolberg, Davinson Sánchez, and Hakim Ziyech were sure to give the Red Devils a run for their money. United’s starting lineup quite controversially didn’t include Anthony Martial or David De Gea, but José Mourinho came to Stockholm with a plan and he stuck to it well. Towering midfielder Marouane Fellaini came in to disrupt the middle of the park with his aerial prowess, and young striker Marcus Rashford was sure to carve out chances with his pace on the counter-attack.

After a pre-match moment of silence to commemorate and honor those lost in the horrible tragedy in Manchester just days earlier, the affair kicked off with an unmistakable sense of anxiousness, hope, and exhilaration. Ajax’s young squad looked sloppy early, allowing early chances to Paul Pogba and Juan Mata. After dealing with the United onslaught, the Dutch giants started keeping good possession that resulted in Bertrand Traoré firing a shot at Romero that was saved high.

In the 18th minute, an Ajax throw-in went awry, resulting in Pogba finding himself free at the top of the box. The French midfielder struck the ball low with his left foot, but it took a deflection off of Davinson Sánchez and over an already-committed André Onana. With an early lead, in typical Mourinho fashion, United made it their duty to sit back and only attack on the counter.

The goal injected new life into Ajax; the side had some good chances following well-won set pieces. On the counter-attack, fullback Valencia marauded forward and struck a hard shot into a prepared Onana. Mkhitaryan received a yellow card in the 31st minute after persistently fouling Veltman on the flank. In the next play, Marcus Rashford was unleashed wide, but his venture into the penalty box was abruptly stopped by 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt, whose fair tackle left the young striker collapsed on the floor.

A few minutes later, Traoré dribbled past the challenges of Fellaini and Pogba, but after beating Daley Blind in the box, the former Ajax defender poked the ball away before Ajax could equalize. In the final minutes of the half, Traoré and Klaassen played a 1-2 that put the Chelsea loanee through on goal, but Mateo Darmian beat him to the ball and let it run out of play.

Having 65% possession shows just how much the young Ajax squad controlled the play in Stockholm, but all it took was one breakthrough for Manchester United to punish them. Danish wonderkid Kasper Dolberg wasn’t afforded one chance at goal from United’s defense, with their best opportunities coming from Bertrand Traoré.

United struck quickly and swiftly after the second half start. In the 48th minute, Chris Smalling headed down a corner in front of Mkhytaryan, who flicked the ball past Onana to put Manchester in control. United actually began pressing after the goal to make it 2-0, but a Fellaini yellow card he received to prevent a counter-attack was followed by them sitting back once more.

Ajax did very well in the build-up to attacks, but there was no finishing product whatsoever. There was still time left, but to expect two goals from a side that struggled to break down a defense even once or twice is a lot. That being said, Ajax still fought tough throughout.
Brazilian winger David Neres was subbed on in the 62nd minute for Dolberg, who was still largely ineffective after the break. That was later followed by Donny van de Beek coming on for Lasse Schøne, whose experience wasn’t paying off in the midfield. That same minute, Ajax won a great free kick opportunity, but Ziyech struck it into the wall.

Jesse Lingard joined the action for goalscorer Mkhitaryan, and youngster Frenkie de Jong later came on for Riedewald. With 10 minutes remaining, however, all seemed controlled by Manchester United.

Ajax pushed forward, trying to get a shot at goal, but was restricted to long shots by center backs and ineffective dribbles. Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney came on late to kill off the game, which they did to great effect. As the full-time whistle blew, Manchester United were Europa League champions.

After a near-miracle run through Europe’s secondary competition, Ajax simply didn’t have what it took to win the final. That being said, from my perspective at least, Ajax were far from outclassed by a world-class Manchester United. The defense was sturdy and aggressive, only conceding from a long shot and a set piece. United wasn’t allowed much room in open play, and a lot of that is down to the prowess of young defenders Sánchez and de Ligt.

Klaassen and Schøne were helpful in the build up, and Hakim Ziyech showed why he’s sought after in England with his silky-smooth dribbling and freakish confidence to shoot from 50 yards out. Dolberg was missing because of United’s intelligent and overpowering defenders, but Younes and Traoré were certainly a thorn in the side of United for much of the match.

Being the youngest squad to ever play in a European final, ever, is quite the feat for Ajax. A club endlessly praised for its commitment to youth development is now finally competing with the big-money members of Europe’s elite. A loss was certainly a disappointing result, but the team showed the world just how competitive a Dutch club can be.
Ajax is back, no question about it.