Manchester United agai-nst Ajax – a classic European final between two giants of the continental game.
One heads into tonight’s 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 this evening 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 tonight’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 final since 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 keeper was also in goal 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 have 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 a week last Sunday, whereas United have had two dead rubbers to contend with in the Premier League since then.
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 said.
“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 tonight. It is a fantastic opportunity for us to show the world again that Ajax is back.”
ROUTES TO THE FINAL:
GROUP STAGE: United hardly had the greatest of starts by losing 1-0 away to Feyenoord but a 4-0 win at Old Trafford against the Dutch side all but sealed second place in Group A with a game to go.
Ajax had few problems in topping Group G as they went unbeaten against Celta Vigo, Standard Liege and Panathinaikos.
LAST 32: Jose Mourinho’s side made light work of St Etienne, 4-0 winners on aggregate. After a goalless draw in Poland, Ajax beat Legia Warsaw 1-0 in Amsterdam.
LAST 16: A 1-1 draw away to FC Rostov gave United a crucial away goal and Juan Mata scored the only goal in the return leg.
FC Copenhagen condemned Ajax to their first Europa League defeat, a 2-1 loss. But Ajax won the return leg 2-0.
QUARTER-FINALS: Marcus Rashford was the hero with his 107th-minute goal in extra time beating Anderlecht 3-2 on aggregate.
Ajax also went to extra time in seeing off Schalke 4-3.
SEMI-FINALS: Rashford struck again with a fantastic free-kick as United ran out 1-0 victors at Celta Vigo, who had United on the ropes in a 1-1 draw in the return at Old Trafford.
Ajax blew Lyon away 4-1 in the first leg and progressed despite a 3-1 second-leg defeat in France.
Keeper: Maarten Stekelenburg
Right-back: Wim Suurbier
Centre-back: Toby Alderweireld
Centre-back: Frank de Boer
Left-back: Ruud Krol
Midfield: Frank Rijkaard
Midfield: Edgar Davids
Midfield: Clarence Seedorf
Striker: Sjaak Swart
Striker: Johnny Rep
Striker: Johan Cruyff
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2)
Goalkeeper: Jack Crompton
Right-back: Gary Neville
Centre-back: Bill Foulkes
Centre-back: Duncan Edwards
Left-back: Roger Byrne
Midfield: David Beckham
Midfield: Bobby Charlton
Midfield: Paul Scholes
Midfield: Ryan Giggs
Striker: George Best
Striker: Dennis Viollet