Europa League Final: United must not underestimate the Ajax starlets

Ajax head coach Peter Bosz has assembled an exciting but youthful side
Ajax head coach Peter Bosz has assembled an exciting but youthful side
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Manchester United are strong favourites to lift the Europa League on Wednesday night, but as Ryan Baldi explains, this current Ajax team is brimming with quality youngsters relishing the prospect of causing an upset...

"United will have the greater experience and star power in Stockholm on Wednesday night, but this Ajax side has an intoxicating blend of exuberance and swagger; they will be relishing the chance to cause an upset."

Ajax v Manchester United
Wednesday, 19:45
Live on BT Sport

Manchester United head into their Europa League final against Ajax on Wednesday night as heavy favourites - United [1.9], Ajax [5.0], Draw [3.65] - with many already taking it as given that José Mourinho's men will overcome their Dutch opposition to lift Europe's secondary title for the first time, sealing their place in next season's Champions League.

But this dynamic and exciting young Ajax team, under the tutelage of former Dutch international midfielder Peter Bosz, have embarked on a thrilling ride to a first European final since 1996 and should not be underestimated.

They may have narrowly missed out on the Eredivisie title for the second season in a row, but there is something brewing within this fledgling group of players; there is a sense that breakout success is right around the corner.

Front and centre of the Ajax revival stands 19-year-old Danish international striker Kasper Dolberg. The youngster wasn't expected to make the leap into regular senior action so soon, but in the absence of Arkadiusz Milik, who was sold to Napoli for more than €30million last summer, the powerful and elegant teenager has shone, scoring 23 goals in all competitions this term.

Partnering on-loan Chelsea forward Bertrand Traoré, Dolberg is reportedly on the radar of Barcelona and Manchester City, but has admitted that he is not quite ready for such a move just yet. For the time being, he will remain at the Amsterdam Arena where he currently benefits from a stellar supply line, fed primarily by gifted playmaker Hakim Ziyech.

Ziyech was rumoured to be a target for Swansea City last summer before leaving Twente to join Ajax. A No.10 by trade, the Moroccan international has thrived primarily in a slightly deeper role as part of the midfield trio in Bosz's 4-3-3 system, scoring 11 goals in all competitions while also contributing 12 assists in the Dutch top flight alone.

A skilled dribbler with an eye for a killer pass and textbook technique, the 24-year-old tormented Lyon during the Amsterdam club's 4-1 semi-final first-leg demolition of their French visitors.

As did German winger Amin Younes, who scored against l'OL in the home leg and assisted in the return fixture. Starting wide on the left, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach youngster's direct dribbling style can see an opposition defence tied in knots when he cuts inside into central areas. His end product may still need refinement but the fact that he has been called up for Germany by Joachim Löw shows how highly he is regarded.

There is also the wildcard option of Justin Kluivert on the opposite flank. The 18-year-old's father, Patrick, scored the winner in Ajax's 1995 Champions League triumph and the wonderfully talented winger will be hoping to have a similar impact.

Kluivert jr. has risen to prominence in recent months as videos of his mesmerising dribbling skills have been shared on social media sites.

In midfield, captain Davy Klaasen is Ajax's driving force. The 24-year-old Dutch international is one of the senior heads amongst the precocious youngsters, and his development from No.10 to deep-lying playmaker and then into the box-to-box role he now occupies has been a fascinating early-career trajectory for the man linked recently with Tottenham Hotspur.

Klaassen's knack for perfectly timing runs into the penalty area and dispatching scoring chances with aplomb has seen him rack up 20 goals this season, trailing only Dolberg as Ajax's second-highest scorer, while his creativity and vision has mustered nine Eredivisie assists.

At the back, the central defensive partnership of Davinson Sánchez and Matthijs De Ligt has gained attention across the Continent, despite having only been together as a pairing for a few short months.

Sánchez, a powerful and athletic centre-half, was brought in for €5million from Atlético Nacional last summer and has quickly established himself as a mainstay of Bosz's backline. The 20-year-old earned his first international cap for Colombia in February and is already being linked with summer moves to Barcelona and Chelsea.

De Ligt only has 11 Eredivisie appearances under his belt, which is unsurprising considering he is still only 17. The 6ft 2ins central defender has earned rave reviews for his combative qualities and maturity, earning his first senior cap for Holland during the last international break.

It's a sad reality of modern football that this young side will likely be broken up before ever coming close to reaching its full potential, with cash-rich vultures from around Europe sweeping in to steal away the Amsterdam Arena's best and brightest; the Europa League final presents the perfect opportunity for them to make their mark before that happens.

United will have the greater experience and star power in Stockholm on Wednesday night, but this Ajax side has an intoxicating blend of exuberance and swagger; they will be relishing the chance to cause an upset.

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