The Europe league final comes at a cross road for two of the biggest teams the modern game has ever seen.
For Manchester United, the only reason they have never won the Europa League or the Uefa Cup as it used to be called, is because over the last 20 odd years they have barely competed in the tournament. They are more used to the high echelons of world football and the premier competition, the UEFA Champions League.
For Ajax of Amsterdam, though previous winner of the tournament, they have found themselves more in the abyss as they have become a shadow of what they once were. They themselves a premier club in the Netherlands, they compete mostly in the UEFA Champions League. After all they have won the Dutch Eredivisie title 33 times. In 1995 they won the champions league to much acclaim and introduced us to a new generation of superstars, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Edwin Van Der Sar to name a few.
So the question is how have these two giants found themselves in this position? How have the mighty fallen?
The loss or should we say the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United with a gaping hole the size of a nuclear missile at the heart of the club. In the time Ferguson spent at Manchester United, all 27 years of them, Manchester United qualified for the champions league on 23 of those occasions. Compare that to post Ferguson and Manchester United have only qualified for the Champions League once. In fact 2014/2015 was the first time Manchester United missed out on Europe all together since 1989/1990 season. That might change though depending on how this final goes.
Over in Amsterdam, Ajax have no such managerial colossus. For them its been more of a hibernation period were they have found themselves largely out fought by the other teams across Europe. They still qualify for the Champions League on a regular basis, as a matter of fact, they find themselves in the Europa League having dropped out of the Champions League at the group stage. They still produce enormous talent from their famed academy but just haven’t been able to bring it all together.
So this final brings together two sides desperate to return to former glory both most recently and in the distant past.
Who needs the victory more you might say? And what would victory mean for either side?
For Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, it brings the circle back around and completes United’s trophy cabinet. Mourinho himself is a previous winner of the tournament in his breakout season with FC Porto fourteen years ago. The team on the other needs to get into the Champions League. The Theater of Dreams needs to feel the lure of a champions league night once again. Manchester United run the risk of becoming the new Liverpool.
Liverpool were a dominant force in England and Europe in the 80’s and 90’s. Remember they even won the Champions League in 2005, the miracle of Istanbul. But even with that they have become the nearly team who cannot regain its former glory. Managerial changes and player shuffles have not done the business.
Manchester United started with David Moyes, who as well chronicled was far from the chosen ones the Reds needed him to be, to Louis Van Gaal, the respected Dutchman and ironically AFC Ajax legend. But ultimately results suffered and the special one, as he used to be called was brought in to change all that. If this season is anything to go by then United have a lot to worry about. 6th place finish is just not what they are used to. And with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs getting better and better, inspiration on and off the field is needed. That inspiration could well come from a Champions League place which comes with victory in the Europa League Final.
For AFC Ajax on the other hand, things don’t look so dire. AFC Ajax had won the Dutch League title four times in a row, between 2011 – 2014 with Frank De Boer in charge. So worst case scenario they will mostly qualify for the Champions League barring any disaster.
But then again trophies are the name of the game. People love to associate with winners. Fans love a winning culture. And nothing comes bigger and better than the Champions League or in this case the Europa League. It might be a 2nd tier tournament but trust me many teams would love to get their hands on the trophy.
The tactical aspect of the match is not of utmost importance. Both teams would be eager to win by any means necessary. What is more important, is the need to be back in the big picture. To be reckoned with and adored on the European stage. Say what you want about Sevilla in the Spanish La Liga but they are three times (consecutive) champions of the Europa League and they got some respect on the continent.
Certainly both teams know what is at stake and need no reminder. What remains for us the fans, is to watch and see which team gets their hands on the trophy. Either team would be deserved winner no doubt.