The following articles were published in the Irish Examiner before and after Manchester United’s Europa League final 2-0 victory over Ajax in Stockholm. – Enjoy, Ger McCarthy.
PRE-MATCH: Three Key Battles
Davy Klassen v Paul Pogba
18 goals in all competitions underline Davy Klassen’s threat to United’s rearguard at the Friends Arena in Stockholm. The 24-year-old captained the Dutch side to second place in the Eredivisie, excelling in his attacking midfield role.
If fully fit, Paul Pogba is expected to feature in Jose Mourinho’s starting line-up having returned to action following a five-game absence against Crystal Palace last weekend. Tonight’s Europa League final represents an opportunity for Pogba to justify his world record transfer by nullifying Klassen’s influence and adding to his tally of 5 goals for the 2016-17’s campaign.
Kasper Dolberg v Chris Smalling or Phil Jones
One of Jose Mourinho’s biggest selection calls is whether Chris Smalling or Phil Jones will start in United’s defence and replace the suspended Eric Bailly. Neither Smalling nor Jones have endeared themselves to United’s manager following lengthy spells in the treatment room but whoever is called up faces an onerous task in marking Kasper Dolberg.
The 19-year-old Ajax striker has found the net 22 times for his club and attracted interest from Europe’s top clubs ahead of expected summer bids. Dolberg, a Dane, is the youngest non-Dutch player to score a hat-trick for Ajax and his goals were pivotal in helping his side overcome Lyon in the semi-finals.
Davinson Sanchez v Marcus Rashford
Ajax’s giant Colombian central defender Davinson Sanchez is likely to move on to pastures new following the Europa League decider. Coveted by Chelsea and Barcelona, Sanchez has enjoyed a stellar campaign and will be tasked with quietening United’s main attacking threat, Marcus Rashford.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury opened the door for Rashford to solidify his place in the first eleven and 10 goals in 43 senior appearances suggests the England international will have a big influence on the Europa League final’s outcome.
Europa League Final – Lessons Learned
It’s only a game
Last Monday’s suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena where 22 people, many of them children, lost their lives meant this year’s Europa League decider was always going to pale into insignificance against the backdrop of such a horrific atrocity.
European Cup final nights are always colourful and sometimes spectacular occasions yet both Manchester United and Ajax’s players and supporters could have been forgiven for not having their minds fully focused at kick-off.
Poignantly, the pre-match minute of silence that burst into a spontaneous crescendo of applause and chanting was an unscripted and beautiful moment.
More than a trophy
Jose Mourinho’s decision to take this season’s Europa League seriously, fielding his strongest available team whenever possible, eventually reaped dividends.
The Portuguese manager has often derided the tournament but the importance of winning UEFA’s second most-important club trophy cannot be overstated following United’s victory. No doubt, claiming the only major European title that had previously eluded the Old Trafford club will please United’s fans.
Yet, securing Champions League football, avoiding any decrease in revenues and the possibility of attracting big-name signings are of far greater significance to United’s boardroom heading into next season.
Ajax faces another difficult summer
Irrespective of the outcome, Ajax coach Peter Bosz was destined for a difficult summer in attempting to hold on to some of his club’s prize assets, many of whom did their future prospects no harm in Stockholm.
Despite the defeat, Colombian defender Davinson Sanchez and midfield talisman Davy Klassen can expect calls from Europe’s top agents over the coming weeks.
Thankfully, Ajax has a history of bouncing back from losing their best young players to Europe’s elite clubs and will continue promoting young talent to keep Ajax at the forefront of Dutch and European football.
Pogba yet to become United’s most important player
Many column inches were written following Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus back to Manchester United for a world record transfer fee of £89 million in the summer of 2016.
Since then, the French international midfielder has struggled to justify the massive outlay that brought the 24-year-old back to Old Trafford. Pogba may have endured an injury-plagued campaign but in truth, has failed to establish himself as United’s dominant player.
Instead, it is Antonio Valencia, Juan Mata, David de Gea and Ander Herrera who picked up the slack and ensured United claimed two trophies and a Champions League berth.