Ajax 0, Manchester United 2
It was the trophy Manchester United hadn’t won. Which wasn’t necessarily a sign of failure, but rather one of success.
The club had been a fixture at the top of the game in the Champions League era, but recent stutters have meant that they were now competing in Europe’s second competition.
Former United midfielder Brian Robson summed up the aims before the game, commenting that this final was as much about getting into next season’s Champions League as it was winning a trophy.
The side their opponents fielded were the youngest ever in a European final, which is in keeping with the season they’ve had under Peter Bosz.
Unlike United, Ajax had already qualified for the Champions League qualifiers next season having finished their domestic season as runners up to Feyenoord in the Eredivisie.
— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) May 24, 2017
It was an awkward start to the game for the young group. They had plenty of possession in their own half but struggled to keep the ball in attacking areas.
They repeatedly dribbled into trouble or gave the ball away carelessly, and regularly lost their footing on the surface of the Friends Arena.
Such is their age and inexperience it would be easy to say they went behind due to naivety, and maybe it’s easy to say as that’s exactly what happened.
Jose Mourinho’s side didn’t have to play particularly well to take the lead, but they were set up in a typically robust fashion designed to absorb pressure and take their chances when they came.
The chance came to Paul Pogba following some questionable Ajax play in their own defensive third and a poor throw in from Jaïro Riedewald.
Pogba’s shot deflected off centre back Davinson Sánchez and into the net, leaving goalkeeper André Onana helpless.
There’s no doubt that the ball went in the net due to the deflection, but the goal was caused by the bigger picture of the game.
Now ahead, United could be even more stubborn.
Ajax’s Danish wonderkid Kasper Dolberg barely saw the ball in the first half, and by the time he was substituted with just over an hour gone the striker had had 16 touches of the ball in total.
And by that time United were already two goals to the good.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) May 24, 2017
Marouane Fellaini and Chris Smalling acted as double target men from Mata’s corner, causing trouble in the 18 yard box.
It was the latter’s header which landed at the feet of Henrik Mkhitaryan who held off his own marker to double the lead with a poachers effort.
United didn’t just shut up shop, they boarded up the windows and pulled down the shutters.
“Men against boys” beamed Rio Ferdinand in the BT Sport studio after the game — an accurate assessment in a physical, mental and tactical sense.
This incarnation of Ajax are a team for the neutrals, but this definitely wasn’t a game for the casual supporter.
It was a game for Mourinho to get his side in the Champions League next season, and he did that with no regard for the neutral or for those seeking some midweek entertainment, and why should he?
Ajax wingers Amin Younes and Bertrand Traoré continually ran at a brick wall, and even when they did make it past one player there were more lying in wait.
Left back Matteo Darmian was the deepest and most impressive of the United defenders, and whereas most clubs now use their fullbacks as auxiliary wingers or even midfielders, the Italian bucked the trend by being the ultimate defender in this red wall wearing blue.
“There are lots of poets in football, but poets didn’t win many titles,” said Mourinho after the game.
An unpopular statement but a convincing claim.
And next season he’ll hope for more of the same.