Alex Keble takes a look at the Europa League final between Manchester United and Ajax on Wednesday, picking out the four key tactical battles and betting tips...
"Hakim Ziyech has hit more crosses in the Europa League (78) than any other player, and his roaming presence in attacking midfield could cause serious problems around the immobile Fellaini."
Jose Mourinho's first season in charge of Manchester United will be deemed a colossal failure should his side lose the Europa League final on Wednesday. Champions League qualification is the bare minimum requirement for the most expensively assembled squad in history, while Mourinho's open dismissal of the top-four race has cranked up the pressure.
Ajax are an exciting young side who, thanks to manager Peter Bosz, are back to playing Cruyffian short-passing, attacking football; the average age of their first 11 during the 4-1 semi-final win over Lyon was just 21.8. The fearlessness of youth could hand this ultra-attacking team an advantage, although Mourinho's wily management might just suffocate the Dutch outfit.
Ajax's direct, wing-focused attackers v Fellaini & Herrera
Ajax like to build predominantly through the centre of the pitch in a fluid 4-3-3 formation, although their three young forwards - Bertrand Traore, Amin Younes, and Kasper Dolberg - will pull wide into the channels in order to isolate the United full-backs.
All three players like to run at defenders, offering Ajax a crucial advantage on the counter-counter; it is worth noting that Ajax have collected the most cards (37 yellows, four red) in the knock-out stages of this year's competition, highlighting their aggressive gegenpressing. If they successfully win the ball high up the pitch, expect the three youngsters to charge head-down towards a back-pedalling defence.
Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be absent most of the time Ajax counter, increasing pressure on Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini to cover ground in wide areas. Their agility, positional discipline, and man-marking of the front three will be crucial.
Ziyech's crossing v Smalling & Blind
The most prominent source of chance creation in the Ajax squad is via crosses into the box, largely as a result of their propensity to combine their short-passing football with the directness of a quick, dribbling front three (see above). United's main concern is defending these crosses as they come into the box without Eric Bailly in the side.
Hakim Ziyech has hit more crosses in the Europa League (78) than any other player, and his roaming presence in attacking midfield could cause serious problems around the immobile Fellaini. If Ajax are allowed to build gradually into the final third (and Jose Mournho's cautious tactics suggest they will) then Ziyech will be afforded space to show he is deadly.
Bailly is suspended for the final, leaving Daley Blind and Chris Smalling to defend these crosses. Blind's height could be an issue, while Smalling is always capable of a mistake.
Back both teams to score at 11/10
Ajax's defensive openness v Rashford & Lingard
In what should be an end-to-end game in Stockholm, Ajax's sloppy defending will provide plenty of opportunities for Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to hurt the Dutch side on the flanks. Bosz's trio of forwards rarely track back, leaving Ajax exposed in wide areas; Mourinho will instruct his team to launch long diagonals into the channels for his own young forwards to chase.
Three of the four goals Ajax conceded against Lyon came from crosses, and on each occasion, there was a conspicuous absence of cover in wide positions. Rashford loves to drift into the left channel, and it is here that he can flourish. Lyon had 37 shots on goal over the two legs; United are not as attack-minded as Lyon, but they will surely have enough firepower to score a couple.
Ajax's overly-attacking midfield v Paul Pogba
An even bigger issue for the young Dutch side is their remarkable boldness in the middle of the pitch. None of their three central midfielders average above 2.1 tackles or 1.7 interceptions per match, and all of them pour forward in attack. The lack of a solid defensive midfielder should allow Paul Pogba to dominate.
The Frenchman hasn't always played well this season but he has looked comfortable on the European stage, average 74 passes per game (sixth highest in the tournament). His strength and swaggering style in possession will frighten such a young central midfield.
What's more, Pogba will not have to work hard to find gaps in-between these three players, who leave an enormous hole in front of the back four when Ajax are on the attack. Expect Pogba to control the game throughout, particularly in the spaces that Ziyech, drifting out wide, leaves in the middle.
Back United to win at 5/6