Ajax v Manchester United
Wednesday 24 May, 19:45
Live on BT Sport 2
Ajax, the club of Cruyff, Neeskens, Keizer, Van Basten, Litmanen, Davids, Seedorf, Rijkaard, Suarez, Ibrahimovic and Kluivert, is back in the big time. Although the Amsterdam giants were pipped to the Eredivisie title by their old foes Feyenoord, a victory in Stockholm would mean so much more to Ajax as a club and Dutch football as a whole. Ajax are the only club to have played in every single edition of the Europa League since the competition was rebranded, and they are finally in position to lift the trophy.
For an institution that loves to dip into its past, the hiring of coach Peter Bosz was something of an anomaly. He had never played for Ajax, and had in fact once turned out for Feyenoord, but after a shaky start to his reign he has grasped the principles upon which the club is built. He has given young players their opportunity to shine (he recently fielded the youngest starting XI in Eredivisie history), and he has played thrilling football at breakneck speed. It's no accident that Bosz has just been named the Eredivisie Coach of the Year, despite the superb achievements of Giovanni van Bronckhorst in Rotterdam.
Ajax topped their Europa League group, and their knockout ties followed a similar pattern. They drew in Warsaw, and lost in Copenhagen, Gelsenkirchen and Lyon. The club's emotional, turbo-charged wins over Legia, Copenhagen, Schalke and Lyon propelled them to Stockholm, but those results pose a big question. What happens to Ajax outside the Dutch capital? Yes, they will have their fans with them, but will a group of largely inexperienced players be able to withstand the pressure of the biggest game of their lives?
Nick Viergever is suspended, so 17-year-old sensation Matthijs de Ligt is likely to partner Davinson Sanchez at the heart of defence. Daley Sinkgraven should line up at left-back if he shakes off a knock. The front three are incredibly dangerous. Amin Younes is a tricky, elusive left-winger who is always trying to bamboozle defenders. On the other side, Bertrand Traore is direct, energetic and carries a goal threat. Through the middle, 19-year-old Dane Kasper Dolberg is an ice-cool finisher, who has netted six UEL goals this term. Behind them, Hakim Ziyech is the playmaker, and Opta tell us he has picked up four assists in his last three Europa League appearances.
Given the horrific events that have unfolded at the Manchester Arena, United's visit to Stockholm now has something of a sombre edge. Some of the players have sent messages of condolence, and the tragedy will no doubt be on the minds of players and travelling fans alike. UEFA have released a statement saying there will be tight security checks at the stadium, but the game will go ahead.
United haven't always impressed on their way to the final, but they have always found a way to do just enough. In the group stage, defeats at Feyenoord and Fenerbahce could have proved costly, but strong home form saw them through. Although United were impressive over two legs against St Etienne in the last 32, they then laboured against Rostov and Anderlecht, before squeezing beyond Celta Vigo by the narrowest of margins in the semi-finals.
That said, I advised backing United to win the tournament in February at [4.6], and I still believe they will. Opta tell us Jose Mourinho has won all six of his meetings with Ajax, but perhaps more relevant is the fact he has won 11 of his 13 cup finals since 2003, and he has won the Champions League (twice) and Europa League. It might not always be pretty, but Mourinho knows how to get the job done.
English clubs have often been accused of not taking this tournament seriously, but Mourinho has from the get-go. World-record signing Paul Pogba has played in every single UEL game this season, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was also a consistent presence until he suffered a campaign-ending injury against Anderlecht.
Many will focus on the Champions League place that winning the Europa League now brings, but this game in Stockholm is about so much more than that for a club that has never won this tournament before. United haven't won a European trophy since 2008, and if they do overcome Ajax, it will unquestionably be the biggest achievement since Sir Alex Ferguson departed. Football is about winning trophies more than it's about having a golden UCL ticket in your hand for next season.
Eric Bailly is suspended and Marcos Rojo is still injured, so Mourinho has decisions to make in central defence. Daley Blind seems likely to start against his old club, and will be partnered by Phil Jones or Chris Smalling. Marcus Rashford is likely to lead the attack - Opta tell us he has been involved in United's last four Europa League goals, scoring two and making two.
United are odds-on favourites here at [1.94], and although Ajax have put in some fine displays in this tournament, that's probably fair. Ajax simply haven't been as effective away from Amsterdam, they looked naïve and brittle at Schalke and Lyon in the last two rounds, and narrowly escaped both times.
There is huge experience of this kind of occasion in the United dugout, and with Blind in defence, Herrera, Pogba and maybe Carrick in midfield, and the irrepressible Rashford in attack, there is strength of character throughout the side.
I love the way Ajax play, and they've done so well to get this far, but I believe United will be too strong for them. I already have an open bet for United to win the tournament, but I certainly wouldn't discourage you from backing them here.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
Unders is the favourite here at [1.76], and I can see why. United's last seven UEL games have seen an Under 2.5 Goals bet pay out, and Mourinho's inclination will be to keep things tight. However, Ajax will look to force the pace here, because they know that's their best chance of winning.
The Ajax defence always gives up opportunities to the opposition, and even though United don't always take their chances as ruthlessly as they should, they do tend to carve out a fair few. An early goal could really open things up, and it's worth noting that United have only managed two clean sheets in their last six Europa League games.
I'll go against the grain here and back Over 2.5 Goals at [2.22].
The Opta stats show that Bertrand Traore has had more shots on target than any other player in the competition, and he has scored four times in the UEL. He is a hefty [4.2] on the Sportsbook to score in 90 minutes, as is midfield general Davy Klaassen, who has scored 16 goals in all competitions.
Time and time again, Rashford has shown he can rise to the big occasion, and I believe his pace will cause problems for de Ligt and Sanchez. At [17/10] on the Sportsbook (Exchange had little liquidity at time of writing), the 19-year-old is worth backing.
Open Bets from previous columns
Backed Manchester United to win the Europa League at [4.6]
Kevin Hatchard 2016-17 Europa League Knockout Stage P/L
Points Staked: 39
Points Returned: 44.81
P/L: +5.81 points