Europa League Final preview: Ajax hope to channel spirit of ’95 against Manchester United

Image credit: Ronald Looijestijn via Flickr

On Wednesday evening in Stockholm, Manchester United and Ajax will contest the Europa League, each hoping for a victory that would add some shine to a below par season (and provide a back door route into the Champions League). Two of Europe’s grand old football institutions seem a long way from being able to look down upon their rivals as they once did.

Ajax, particularly, are a great European name without much recent success in European competition. It has been some time since they last troubled the latter stages of a continental cup competition. In fact, it’s been a full 22 years since Ajax wowed the watching world with victory in 1995’s Champions League final against AC Milan.

Younger football fans may mainly know Louis Van Gaal for his unhappy spell at Manchester United. It was a strange time, full of confusing team selections, tactical caution and picking fights with the press and Sam Allardyce. So it might be surprising to find that the Dutchman was once a bold innovator.

When Ajax conquered Europe

Van Gaal’s career has always been marked by a willingness to trust youth. In fairness, he did the same at Manchester United (and before that, Barcelona), but he built that reputation in Amsterdam first. The team that took to the pitch in Vienna’s Ernst-Happel Stadium for the Champions League final in ’95 contained three teenagers and just two players over the age of 25.

Milan, by contrast, were packed with experience. Their starting XI had only one player under 26. The Italians were playing in their third consecutive final and were the holders after an astonishing 4-0 win over Barcelona in the previous season.

They had won the European Cup three times in the previous seven years. Managed by the granite-faced tactician Fabio Capello, they were understandable favourites. The experienced heads of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marcel Desailly et al would take some beating.

SEE ALSO: Fabio Capello and the story of AC Milan’s unbeaten season

Ajax, though, were not overawed. They had already faced Milan in the group stages twice, and beaten them, ending the group stage unbeaten. They may have looked like a youth team, but they didn’t play like one. Ajax’s team of youth products and well-scouted relative unknowns won the game 1-0, the winning goal netted by 18-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert.

It felt at the time like Ajax could dominate for a generation. Instead, the squad was picked apart by European rivals. That summer they kept most of their key players. Only Clarence Seedorf left for Sampdoria and Frank Rijkaard retired.

They reached another Champions League final in the 1995/96 season, losing on penalties to Juventus. It was then that the squad members began to try their luck across Europe. Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids and Finidi George departed, and it wasn’t long before Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Nwankwo Kanu, the de Boer brothers and even Van Gaal himself followed them out of the exit door.

Past and Present Connections

Ajax have never hit such heights in Europe again. But there are echoes of their glorious past in the present day Europa League final.

Van Gaal has managed both clubs, Manchester United’s team could feature Daley Blind – son of Ajax legend Danny. Justin Kluivert (son of Patrick) will hope to have the same impact in Stockholm as his father did in Vienna. As if those connections weren’t enough, Edwin Van Der Sar, a legendary goalkeeper for both clubs, is now general manager at Ajax.

SEE ALSO: Justin Kluivert: Like father like son for Ajax’s hottest new talent

Whichever club triumphs in the Europa League, the victory won’t hold a candle to either club’s previous Champions League victories. This is the reality of their positions.

Ajax are perhaps more used to their diminished European standing than United. Both will hope to use this as a launching pad to better things. Time will tell whether the latest batch of young stars can emulate those of over two decades ago, but they could channel the spirit of those young men who beat a more expensively assembled outfit.

Manchester United could also heed the lessons of Vienna in 1995, and not underestimate their opponents. What price a Kluivert winner from the bench this time?

SEE ALSO: Why aren’t Manchester United scoring more goals?

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Image credit: Ronald Looijestijn via Flickr.

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