A place in the Champions League group stage is up for grabs as Manchester United aim to salvage a second trophy from their season when they come up against Ajax, who are after their first European triumph in 22 years.
The pressure is undoubtedly on United. Along with the weight of expectation that comes with being the favourites, they have openly and unashamedly prioritised the Europa League for many weeks, effectively putting aside any attempts to finish in the top four of the Premier League in order to pursue, what they feel, is a more realistic goal.
Throughout the competition, Jose Mourinho’s side have coped well. After an occasionally unconvincing group stage, they faced few problems until the quarter-finals, where Anderlecht forced them into extra time. Having passed that test, Celta Vigo had them sweating towards the end of their last four clash, but ultimately United are worthy of their place in the final.
Were they to emerge on top and gain that Champions League place, this would certainly go down as a successful season for the Red Devils, when added to their EFL triumph in February. If they were to lose, it would go down as failure when aligned to finishing a disappointing sixth in the Premier League; an illustration of the fine lines that are presented by the outcome of this encounter.
Eric Bailly is suspended after being sent off against Celta Vigo, and Mourinho will make numerous changes to his team from the XI he fielded at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday, having rested many of his key players with this final in mind. The scene is set for Marcus Rashford, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scoring record over the competition could ensure that he has a big say in proceedings.
Ajax are another club with a proud European history, but in recent years they have experienced slim pickings on the big stage as a result of being unable to seriously compete with the spending power of other clubs from across the continent.
Their newfound success has largely been down to sticking to what they know and following their rich tradition of bringing through talented youngsters, many of whom will surely be incapable of resisting the lure of greater rewards elsewhere. But for the time being, they and their nurturing manager Peter Bosz – who like Mourinho is just coming to the end of his first season in charge – are the central figures behind the club’s renaissance.
The current squad contains few names that will be familiar to a British audience, but young Danish striker Kasper Dolberg is quickly making a name for himself, scoring 23 goals in 47 outings so far this season. Captain Davy Klaassen is the driving force, while on-loan Chelsea Bertrand Traore is also part of the setup.
The Amsterdam club came a close second to rivals Feyenoord in the race for the Eredivisie title, but are hoping to go one better in the Europa League, following a highly entertaining run to the final which included several close ties. They had to come from behind to beat FC Kobenhavn in the Round of 32, and then held off second leg comebacks from Schalke 04 and Lyon to set up this meeting with United.
It all promises to be an attractive final full of enterprising football. Ajax are unlikely to sit back and invite pressure, while United will set out to get on the front foot and nullify their attacking threat. The rewards are so rich for the victors, but bitter disappointment awaits for the losers.