Ajax 0 - 2 Manchester United: match report
A disciplined performance from Manchester United was enough to see off an exuberant Ajax side that spluttered, but never burst in to life during the Europa League final in Stockholm. Paul Pogba opened the scoring after a fortuitous deflection in the first half, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan sealed the victory with a neat finish shortly after the break.
The lead up to the match was sombre. Football seemed almost frivolous following the tragic attack in Manchester on Monday evening, which claimed the lives of 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert. Ajax manager Peter Bosz said on Tuesday that the attack had taken the shine off the final, and it was hard to disagree. The two teams completed a minute silence before kick-off. In the stands, the silence gave way to a chant of ‘Manchester, Manchester’, a chant of defiance and pride.
Manchester United made the quicker start. Within the first minute, a nerves-induced mix-up between Joel Veltman and André Onana allowed Paul Pogba to flash a volley just wide. Yet the Dutch side settled. They found their rhythm. The impressive pairing of De Ligt and Sánchez began to dictate play from the heart of defence, with an absorbent United sitting deep.
The breakthrough came after 18 minutes. Paul Pogba shimmied on to his left foot, and shot from 25 yards. Davison Sánchez flung himself in to the path of the ball, but succeeded only in deflecting it beyond a despairing Onana and in to the net.
The match began to settle in to a pattern. Ajax dominated possession, they zipped the ball about. Yet they never made Manchester United uncomfortable. Chelsea-loanee Bertrand Traoré was bright on the left hand side, but therein lay the problem for Ajax; they were relying on individual guile and sparks of creativity. As a collective, they did not combine with enough speed or movement.
United doubled their lead shortly after half time, as Chris Smalling nodded a corner down to Mkhitaryan in the six-yard box. The Armenian swiveled, and shot over his shoulder in to the net.
With a two goal lead, United continued to concentrate. They were unadventurous and turgid, but they saw out their task. Ander Herrera was a niggling anti-hero in the centre of the midfield; destructive without the ball, and quietly efficient with it. He epitomised the dogged discipline that José Mourinho has instilled in this side.
Juan Mata was lucky to avoid a red card after 77 minutes. The Spaniard arrived late on Matthijs De Ligt, and caught the 17 year old with his studs showing. For his part, De Ligt was superb. He possesses the ability to glide with the ball at his feet, but is not afraid of a physical battle.
Ajax, with an average age of just over 22, lacked the guile and in-game intelligence to break through the impermeable blocks of blue shirts.
Peter Bosz’ choice to field a left-footed winger on the right, and a right-footed winger on the left, did not work. Ajax players constantly turned in to congestion, rather than seeking space on the flanks. They were stuck in the United stodge.
As the final whistle blew, the United bench spilled on to the pitch. The squad celebrated with exuberance in front of the travelling support. United won the trophy, but they did not shine like the piece of silverware that Wayne Rooney held aloft, probably on his last appearance for the club before a summer exit. Manchester United did what they had to do, they out-thought Ajax. That was enough for them to add the Europa League to the burgeoning trophy cabinet at Old Trafford.