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Man United’s false dawn proved to be Ajax’s joyful awakening

Man United and Ajax find themselves in very different places two years on from the 2017 Europa League final

While Lionel Messi was busy transforming Phil Jones into an extra from The Mummy Returns through the power of nutmegs, Ajax were toppling the established order in Turin.

Man United looked stale and sluggish while Ajax rippled with the exuberance of a butterfly taking its first flight.

The contrasting scenes at the final whistle were a far cry from the events of 24 May 2017, when United beat Ajax to lift the Europa League.

A moment of silence, please

A moment of silence, please

That night was supposed to be the start of a new dawn for United. A first European honour since 2008, following on the back of the EFL Cup and Community Shield successes earlier in the season, secured a Champions League berth for the following campaign.

In Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford- as well as David De Gea who was benched for cup keeper Sergio Romero against Ajax- Jose Mourinho appeared to have players around which to build his next dynasty around.

As for Ajax, the final defeat meant Peter Bosz’s squad finished the season trophyless.

A shock Champions League exit at the hands of Greek side PAOK in the qualifying round set the tone for a disastrous season in which Ajax finished runners-up to Feyenoord in the Eredivise and crashed out of the KNVB Cup in the third round.

The bitter taste of defeat

The bitter taste of defeat

Two years on, the roles have reversed.

Ajax find themselves in the semi-finals of the Champions League, the final of the KNVB Cup and occupying 1st place in the Eredivisie. United, now under the guidance of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rather than Mourinho, only have a Champions League spot to play for.

There’s a general view of Ajax as being in a perpetual state of rebuilding, yet four of the 11 who started the Europa League final also started the Champions League quarter-final victory against Juventus, while Frenkie De Jong, Donny van de Beek and David Neres have been promoted from the bench.

For United, only Chris Smalling, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford made the transition from Europa League final starters to sacrificial lambs for Messi.

All aboard the next plane to Amsterdam

All aboard the next plane to Amsterdam

There’s a glaringly obvious difference in Ajax and United’s ability to rebuild, whether that’s a forced revamp or a bid to kick on to the next level.

Ten of Ajax’s 18-man Europa League final squad- Davinson Sanchez, Davy Klaassen, Bertrand Traore, Jairo Riedwald, Amin Younes, Kenny Tete, Heiko Westermann and Justin Kluivert- have since moved on.

They’ve been replaced by academy players who are already indoctrinated in the Ajax way of playing, like De Jong and right-back Noussair Mazraoui, experienced internationals who add to the technical quality at the club, such as Dusan Tadic, or, in the case of Daley Blind, players that tick both boxes.

United haven’t been anywhere near as targeted in their recruitment drive as Ajax.

Solskjaer will, at the bare minimum, need to sign a right-back, centre-back, central midfielder in the summer, despite major transfer fees being spent on all those areas in the two years since the 2017 Europa League final.

Whereas Ajax have former players Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmans making the footballing decisions at the club, United have Ed Woodward.

Woodward, while undoubtedly advancing United commercially by putting the club at the forefront of discussions about sleeve sponsors and collaborations with dating apps, has lumbered Solskjaer with expensive, ageing footballers who don’t fit into the Norwegian’s playing philosophy.

For as long as United keep trying to wing it in the transfer market, the club won’t go forward. As for Ajax, the inevitable purge of players in the summer will undoubtedly bring in the latest wave of De Toekomst graduates ready to fill the void.

‘You’re fired! Just kidding, here’s £500,000-a-week’

‘You’re fired! Just kidding, here’s £500,000-a-week’