By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Manchester United and Ajax will both have a chance to burnish their proud European traditions and finish the season on a high note as they meet in the final of the Europa League in Stockholm on Wednesday.
The game pits the financial might and strong defense of a United team that has conceded just seven goals in the competition against a youthful Ajax team that is capable of offensive fireworks, but has struggled away from home.
“Many in Holland said it was not possible for a Dutch team to play in the final because the financial difference in Europe between the big clubs and the Dutch clubs is so big now, but we managed it,” Ajax manager Peter Bosz told a media conference over the weekend.
Despite their monetary muscle, Jose Mourinho’s side struggled to keep up with the pace-setters in the Premier League and looked sluggish at times in the knockout stages of the Europa League.
Having finished outside the top four in England and lost striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a serious knee injury, United are now depending on victory at the Friends Arena in Stockholm to get them into next season’s Champions League.
Mindful of the risk of injury over the final weeks of the campaign, Mourinho has been careful to rest key players like Paul Pogba ahead of the final.
The French midfielder, who cost a reputed 105 million euros ($117.98 million) when he joined United last summer, was withdrawn just before half-time in United’s final game of the season against Crystal Palace on Sunday.
The historic significance of the date will not be lost on Ajax as the final will be played 22 years to the day after their storied 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the 1995 Champions League final.
That Ajax team featured Danny Blind, whose son Daley will play for United on Wednesday, and Patrick Kluivert, father of current Ajax winger Justin Kluivert.
Ajax were pipped to the Dutch title by bitter rivals Feyenoord, and though they made next season’s Champions League qualifiers, they will be eager to add to their European trophy cabinet.
Regularly featuring players in their teens or early twenties, Ajax boast a fantastic array of attacking talent, with Danish striker Kasper Dolberg combining strength, touch and finishing to make him the fulcrum of their attack.
But their relative inexperience and poor away record in the tournament would suggest that they may struggle against a disciplined, physical United side that desperately needs a big win to salvage their season.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; editing by Mark Heinrich)