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Are Manchester United deserved favourites for the Europa League title?

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From unwanted distraction to top priority, Manchester United’s path to the Europa League final in Stockholm on Wednesday 24th May has been an odd one. Nonetheless, they still face a tough challenge before fans can begin to book flights to Sweden, as United look to join Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Ipswich Town in having won Europe’s secondary competition.

With sides from Spain, France and Holland all looking to stand in their way, it certainly won’t be an easy task for United, despite their tag of firm favourites.Although, as the competition enters the final four, United looking increasingly confident and increasingly committed to winning the trophy.

Here, we take a look at who they will have to overcome if they are to win the Europa League title for the first time in their history…

Celta Vigo

The Spanish side will look to keep the trophy in Spain after Sevilla won the Europa League three years on the trot, following in the footsteps of Atletico Madrid, who won it twice in three years before them. The Galicians face Manchester United in the semi-final but will certainly be no pushovers.

Having beaten Real Madrid over two legs in the Copa del Rey, and having taken three points off Barcelona this season, there is every reason to believe that former Liverpool striker Iago Aspas and his team-mates can provide a real challenge to United in the penultimate round of the competition.

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There is no denying that there is a lack of real star quality that some of their competitors possess, but their squad is a strong one. Captain Hugo Mallo has been linked with Barcelona of late, whilst their strike partnership sees two former Premier League players combine in Iago Aspas and former Manchester City striker John Guidetti.

Read on over the next few pages to see what the Red Devils can expect from their other competitors…

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Sam is a Southend United fan and student based in the South-West. He has previously worked for various publications, including FourFourTwo magazine and ITV. Sam also has an extensive knowledge of Spanish football and has previously lived and worked in Spain. Find Sam on Twitter at @samleveridge.

Ajax

Could this Ajax duo be a suitable alternative to Mamadou Sakho at Crystal Palace?

Martyn Cooke

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The Guardian are reporting that Crystal Palace are preparing to end their pursuit of Mamadou Sakho, after being priced out of a move for the out-of-favour Liverpool defender.

The Frenchman has been frozen out of the first team picture at Anfield since the summer of 2016 with Jurgen Klopp making it abundantly clear that he is not part of his rebuilding plans.

Crystal Palace brought in Sakho on a short-term loan in January as the club battled against relegation and the 30-year-old’s consistent performances in central defence played a pivotal role in The Eagles securing survival.

A knee ligament injury curtailed his spell at Selhurst Park, but the club hierarchy were optimistic of sealing a permanent deal in the summer.

However, Liverpool have set a £30 million asking price for Sakho and are unwilling to drop their valuation of the player.

Talks have taken place between the two clubs but Crystal Palace are unwilling to invest such a large portion of their transfer budget on one purchase, with new manager Frank de Boer confident that he can recruit up to five players for the same amount of money.

That has prompted the London club to consider alternative options.

Alternative options

Frank de Boer faces a significant rebuilding task as he heads into the start of pre-season with a Crystal Palace squad that only just escaped relegation in the last campaign and has seen a multitude of departures.

The Eagles have released Fraizer Campbell, Joe Ledley, Mathieu Flamini, Jonathan Benteke and Zeki Fryers whilst Mamadou Sakho and Loic Remy have returned to their parent clubs following the conclusion of their loan deals.

This has left the current squad looking short of quality and strength in depth with de Boer, although keen to assess the players that he has inherited before dipping into the transfer market, aware that he will have to bring in a host of new faces. With a deal for Sakho looking increasingly unlikely the Dutch coach is looking to widen the search for reinforcements.

The Guardian are suggesting that Ajax defensive pair Joel Veltman and Kenny Tete have been earmarked by de Boer as potential defensive targets as he attempts to construct a more youthful team.

De Boer handed Veltman his first team debut at Ajax five years ago after promoting him from the club’s youth academy and is confident that his existing reputation with the player will help to finalise a potential deal.

The 25-year-old defender, who is equally as capable playing as a fullback or central defender, has made 17 appearances for Dutch national team whilst his performances have attracted the interest of a number of high-profile clubs, including Tottenham Hotspur, as reported by the Standard.

His current contract is due to expire at the end of the season and Ajax are expected to cash-in to avoid losing Veltman for free in twelve months’ time.

Meanwhile, Tete has been granted permission to miss Ajax’s pre-season training camp in Austria to hold talks with other clubs regarding a potential transfer. The 21-year-old has cemented his place as one of Holland’s brightest, young attacking fullbacks and has already made six appearances for the Dutch national team.

De Boer also handed Tete his first team debut whilst manager at Ajax.

Is a move likely?

Frank de Boer is keen to build a team based on youth, energy and enthusiasm at Crystal Palace and it appears that he will continue his philosophy of buying and developing talent rather than investing heavily in experienced, big-name players.

The club’s decision to pull out of negotiations for Mamadou Sakho suggests that their new Dutch manager believes that he can get better value for money elsewhere, with Joel Veltman and Kenny Tete at the top of his wish-list.

Both players are being courted by a number of clubs across Europe but de Boer is confident that his existing relationship with the pair can convince them to move to Selhurst Park. The Dutchman handed Veltman and Tete their first team debuts whilst managing Ajax and is fully aware of their ability and potential.

The pair are expected to depart Ajax during the summer with Tete being granted permission to talk to other clubs whilst Veltman has less than one year remaining on his current deal. Crystal Palace believe that they can secure their signatures for around £10 million and believe that this would be a much more effective investment when compared to the £30 million that Liverpool are demanding for Sakho.

The real challenge for de Boer would be to convince Veltman and Tete to join Crystal Palace rather than a more glamorous European club.

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Can Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez replace the goals of Romelu Lukaku for Everton?

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It is believed that Everton are close to securing the transfers of two of Europe’s most promising attacking talents. The Guardian have reported that a deal for Malaga striker Sandro Ramirez is close to completion after the 21-year-old arrived in Liverpool at the weekend for talks.

The ex-Barcelona forward was wanted by Spanish giants Atletico Madrid. However, Everton look set to benefit from the transfer ban recently handed to Diego Simeone’s side. The Toffees are also fortunate that Ramirez has a release clause in his contract of just €6 million – a fraction of what they hope to recoup from the sale of Romelu Lukaku.

Given the impending departure of the Belgian – who is yet to announce his next club – and the release of Arouna Kone, it is no surprise that Everton are trying to secure the Spaniard’s services.

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Lukaku will leave behind an enormous, 25 goal shaped hole in Ronald Koeman’s attack – around 40% of their league goals last season. Yet Ramirez, who turns 22 next month, looks capable of replacing a sizeable chunk of that return.

In his first, and what looks set to be his only season with Malaga, he netted 16 times in 31 appearances, scoring once every 165 minutes in La Liga. The man he is due to replace needed just 130 minutes per goal.

If Ramirez can replicate those numbers in the Premier League then he will be a bargain. At Malaga, he performed within a mid-table side who are less competitive than Everton are in England and found the net against Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, whilst showing off his varied abilities. 14 La Liga goals included superb free-kicks, long-range drives, headers and impressive solo efforts.

The other player potentially heading for Goodison Park is Ajax captain Davy Klaassen. At just 24 years of age, the playmaker has won Eredivisie titles, led his side to a Europa League final and was directly involved in 32 goals over 50 appearances last campaign (20 goals 12 assists).

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Having been at the club since 2004 and rising through Ajax’s famed youth system, the attacking midfielder holds a much higher price tag of around £26 million – according to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. The paper has reported that the two clubs are in talks over a deal.

Everton have been unable to resolve the ongoing contract situation with Ross Barkley who has stalled on signing the offered extension. Klaassen would be a worthy replacement for the Englishman if he should depart.

As seen in the past, signing players from the Netherlands can be risky – Vincent Janssen and Luis Suarez provide perfect examples of the hit and miss nature. Klaassen has the advantage of recent international caps, scoring four in 14 for Oranje, but his productivity rate for Ajax saw a notable decline in European football compared to his Eredivisie form – in the Europa League, he needed three times the number of minutes per goal.

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However, Koeman scouted his compatriot frequently throughout the season and has a respectable record with transfers – he will know what to expect.

With Everton holding out for £100 million for Lukaku, as talkSPORT reported, spending less than a third of it on Ramirez and Klaassen would be smart business. The transfers would assist in rebuilding from the loss of their best player and allow funds for further acquisitions.

Koeman could build a more complete squad, ensuring the Toffees are not dependent on a single player. improving the side’s depth will be crucial considering the club’s return to the Europa League.

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Three Ajax men that could cause problems for Manchester United in Stockholm

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Manchester United and Ajax will lock horns in Stockholm on Wednesday evening with both sides looking to end their long and eventful seasons with success in the Europa League final.

Jose Mourinho’s side will be looking to complete their trophy cabinet with the one piece of silverware that’s proved elusive in the club’s history, and will no doubt go all out to claim victory.

On the other hand, the Dutch side will be appearing in a European final for the first time since their Champions League appearance 20 years ago and will be hoping their young side come out on top.

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See below for three players that could crash Manchester United’s Europa League party in Stockholm…

Davy Klaassen

One of the eldest and most experience players in the Ajax ranks is forward Davy Klaassen, a man who has been influential in their challenge on both a domestic and European front this season.

The Ajax captain has notched nine goals in the Dutch league this season, adding 14 assists to that tally, and has been at the forefront of any attacking play that Ajax have produced this season.

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The 24-year-old is prolific in front of goal – there is no other word for it – and his instincts to be in the right place at the right time inside the area will make him a huge threat on Wednesday night.

But it’s not just his goal-scoring traits that leaves him a threat, as he’s created as many chances (58) this season as shots he’s had (60) in the Eredivisie and it’s this versatility that leaves him dangerous.

With Manchester United’s key man Eric Bailly ruled out through suspension, Klaassen will be licking his lips at an experimental United back four and will be looking to exploit any weaknesses.

Kasper Dolberg

The young Ajax man has really hit the headlines in his debut season at the Dutch side this year, bursting on to the scene after being scouted by the man who found a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

At just 19-years-old the Danish forward has scored 16 goals in the league this year, showing an exceptional ability with both feet and having a turn of pace that could give defenders nightmares.

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The quality of his performances this year has seen him become almost undroppable in the Ajax side, and is just reward when considering he hit an 18-minute hat-trick in just his third month in the team.

Dolberg possesses a composure that is almost uncommon for somebody of his age, having a level head in front of goal to stay cool and stick the ball in the net – and Sergio Romero should stay wary.

It could certainly turn into a battle of the 19-year-olds forwards in Stockholm between Dolberg and Marcus Rashford, with both having the raw talent needed to spur their side on to a huge victory.

Bertrand Traore

Currently on-loan from Manchester United’s Premier League rivals Chelsea, Betrand Traore has suddenly started thriving at the Dutch side in recent months.

Given few chances at Stamford Bridge under first Jose Mourinho and now Antonio Conte, the 21-year-old has hit 13 goals in 36 matches this season and has impressed in a role on the Ajax wings.

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His passing in the final third has improved substantially under the excellent coaching in Holland – ably helped by Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp – and his intelligence on the football field has also developed well in the space of ten months, now knowing the right time to run in behind a defence.

His pace will always cause problems for any back-line, and there’s no doubt that Traore has the brute strength to back this up; now it’s a case of using it to good effect in a massive game for Ajax.

It was his brace in the semi-final first-leg against Lyon that put Ajax firmly in the driving seat to reach the final, and Manchester United would do well to keep a careful eye on the youngster in Stockholm.

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