Jose Mourinho has gone from calling the Europa League a tournament Manchester United didn’t want to be in, to one that, should his side win, would signify a ‘perfect’ end to the season. Of course, picking out quotes from the archives muttered by anyone can throw up contradictions, and the Portuguese is by no means the first manager to change his tune when silverware is on offer.
There is no doubt, though, that the United boss has gone ‘all in’ when it comes to this competition. For a manager who rarely gambles, the final against Ajax is certainly make or break in terms of how most will see his first year in charge at Old Trafford.
In the past, Mourinho has always been confident of doing enough to win trophies at the business end of a campaign. His record is outstanding, enjoying 11 victories from 13 finals with five different clubs. You sense, though, he feels that this is a bigger task for United than the bookmakers believe it will be – who rate them as strong, odds-on favourites to defeat the Dutch club in Stockholm.
Was Sunday’s bizarre 17 second press-conference more Mourinho theatre? Or was it, as he intimated, cut short because of his desire to prepare even more for the match against Ajax?
It’s a lack of a definitive style that has frustrated many regulars at Old Trafford this campaign. Nearly every fan could give you an accurate description of how most clubs in the Premier League play, and certainly the other teams that finished in the top six. United’s characteristics are harder to define, though.
Safety first? Probably
Look to dominate midfield at the expense of a cutting edge up front? Usually. No-one would suggest those are necessarily bad tactics when taking on the better sides, but against the lesser lights in England and across the continent, United have remained functional rather than flamboyant.
This isn’t a problem if you’re winning every game, but United haven’t been. Far too many draws – 15 in the Premier League including ten at home (a number that is even more incredible given the first time they shared the spoils wasn’t until October) – prevented Mourinho’s team from challenging for the title. That’s not to say they won’t win the Europa League.
In contrast to United, Ajax’s current style stays true to the Amsterdam club’s illustrious history. Peter Bosz is a lifelong student of Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal, and his squad possess the same sort of youthful vibrancy and potential that Ajax had in the mid 90s and early 2000s. Only time will tell whether this current vintage can be as successful as the team that won the Champions League in 1995.
United haven’t got a fully fit squad to choose from and Zlatan Ibrahimovic misses out playing against the club he made his name at, in his native country. Eric Bailly is suspended while Marcos Rojo is injured. Chris Smalling and Marouane Fellaini are doubts, which suggests Phil Jones and Daley Blind could partner up at centre back.
For the Dutch defender, it means playing against the club he came through the academy at. This also means coming up against one of the hottest prospects in European football – Kasper Dolberg. The 19-year-old Dane has scored 23 goals for Ajax this season in all competitions, including netting in each of the last four games he has started. His movement and link up play with Hakim Ziyech, who can boast 15 assists in the Eredivisie and Europa League combined, will be key to Ajax’s fortunes.
However, while Ajax have got plenty of attacking talent they have, at times, struggled at the back. Bosz’s team have managed only a solitary clean sheet in their last seven games and are without key defender Nick Viergever through suspension. This season, Ajax’s win percentage when the Dutch international centre back doesn’t play has dropped from 76 per cent to 45 per cent. Bosz is likely to field a back four with an average age of just over 21, and, as Mourinho knows, cup finals are all about experience.
With Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick thought to make up United’s midfield, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford employed as a forward trio, Mourinho’s side should have too much for Ajax. While the Portuguese’s style is hard to define at the moment, the fact that he has an unblemished record when coaching teams against Ajax – six wins from six games (all with Real Madrid) – would suggest that he knows how to beat a club that has generally always played the same way.
I don’t expect a classic in Stockholm, but Mourinho can be trusted to do what he does best – and that’s win finals. Success in the only competition United haven’t won should put a thick layer of gloss on their season, as I’m sure even the Portuguese will admit.
You can bet on the Europa League Final with Grosvenor Sports.
Marcus Rashford to score the first goal in regular time: 11/2
Manchester United to win 1-0 in regular time: 6/1
For more Europa league odds, take a look at Grosvenor Sport’s Europe League betting.