The Europa League final is hotly anticipated this year as two of the biggest clubs in European football meet in Stockholm.
Manchester United and Ajax are both past winners of the Champions League, but only one will be able to lift the Europa League trophy on Wednesday evening.
The competition has been disrespected in England since its inception, but this marks the second successive year that a Premier League side has made the final.
Liverpool lost to Sevilla last season and missed out on the Champions League spot on offer to the winners.
Here are three battles that will be key in determining the result in Stockholm…
Marcus Rashford vs Davinson Sanchez
Ajax have a young, confident squad, but Manchester United will be hoping that their inexperience will be their downfall on Wednesday night. That said, the Premier League club have a talented youngster of their own in Marcus Rashford and he is expected to start in Stockholm.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is injured for the final in his homeland and that means that United’s 19-year-old striker will be given the nod. His dynamism and movement show an intelligence beyond his years, but he faces a difficult battle against Davinson Sanchez.
The Colombian centre back is a player typical of the Ajax ethos. He is confident in possession and the defender that Andre Onana looks for when distributing the ball. However, it is his positional sense that will cause Rashford problems. Sanchez is rarely caught in the wrong area of the pitch and he has the physical attributes to match the Manchester United striker.
Like any inexperienced player, the centre back can be rash in his decision making and lose concentration at times, but he has an impressive recovery speed when he does make a mistake. If Rashford gets behind the Ajax defence tomorrow, the Ajax defender is capable of getting back and making a last-ditch challenge. This will be a battle featuring two exciting young players and it could be one that decides the outcome.
Ander Herrera vs Hakim Ziyech
As a €15 million investment last summer, Hakim Ziyech is one of the few players that hasn’t benefited from an education at Ajax. However, he was arguably the best player in the Eredivisie during his time with FC Twente and, since his move to the capital, he has taken his game to a new level.
In the first leg against Lyon, the Moroccan international was incredible and assisted three of the four goals. He is given freedom to roam by Peter Bosz and completed six key passes on that evening. In addition to his creative flair, the 24-year-old is excellent at pressing in the attacking half and winning the ball back for his team, as displayed by his seven ball recoveries at the Amsterdam Arena.
He is the player that United need to shut down on Wednesday.
The player that they will ask to keep a close eye on the Ajax midfielder is Ander Herrera, who has emerged as one of the most important players in the current United side. His tenacity and work rate provide Paul Pogba with the license to roam forward. Against this energetic and youthful Ajax side, Herrera has a huge job to do and it chiefly involves Ziyech.
In the Europa League this season, the Spaniard has averaged 6.1 ball recoveries per game, which is an impressive achievement. He will need to be at his aggressive best to prevent their Dutch opposition from having too much time on the ball in the United half.
Phil Jones vs Kasper Dolberg
Manchester United have defensive issues after Eric Bailly was shown a red card in the second-leg of their semi-final against Celta Vigo. Ajax have had some excellent strikers down the years and the latest forward to make a name for himself at the club is Kasper Dolberg.
The 19-year-old is the first teenager to score 16 league goals in a season since Patrick Kluivert and he could become the top goal scoring teenager in Europa League history with a goal in the final.
He is a near complete striker, as he can thrive in a physical battle in addition to beating them in the dribble. The most impressive part of his game is his movement, as he has a habit of getting in behind the defence. When he gets into that position, his finishing rarely lets him down and he is the main goal threat that United need to worry about.
The defensive crisis means that Phil Jones is likely to start for the Premier League side. This is the view taken by the Evening Standard and it is a worry for United as he has played three times in the competition this season. He has had problems with injury and doesn’t seem to be a part of Jose Mourinho’s long-term plans.
On his day, he is a fine defender and United will need him to step up to the occasion on Wednesday to nullify the threat of Dolberg. He has the experience to come out on top and it will be interesting to see if he does manage to do so.
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