Key Battles: Herrera needed to stifle Klaassen, Rashford and Smalling face big challenges

This is it. The success of Manchester United’s season hinges on the outcome of Wednesday night’s Europa League final in Stockholm against Ajax Amsterdam. A win would neatly cover up United’s disappointing league campaign and hand them a place in next season’s Champions League, but a defeat would place the focus squarely on United’s worst league finish since the disastrous David Moyes season. With Ajax also failing to achieve domestic success, however, finishing behind champions Feyenoord in the league and being knocked out in the last 16 of the domestic cup, United face another team hungry and in need of success. As such, Wednesday’s final could prove to be a tightly contested affair, with some contentious individual battles to look out for.



Ander Herrera v Davy Klaassen

Herrera is a player that has undergone a very impressive transformation this season, from a creative midfielder to a defensive one. A transformation that has served him well, winning him this season’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. He has not been as defensively active in the Europa League as he has been in the league, averaging three defensive actions in the competition as opposed to five in the league, but he might be called upon to defend against the threat in Ajax’s midfield, Klaassen. The Ajax captain has contributed to more goals than anyone at the club, having scored 20 goals and assisted 12 in all competitions. As is the case with Herrera, Klaassen hasn’t been as impressive in the Europa League, managing just two goals and two assists, but with so much at stake in the final, expect the two to clash in full firing form.



Chris Smalling v Kasper Dolberg

In a season where United’s defence has been one of their strongest points, it is safe to say that Smalling has been one of its weakest links, showing a serious regression from last season’s Player of the Year. But with Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo unavailable, and with Smalling rested from Sunday’s clash against Crystal Palace, Smalling looks set to start in United’s biggest game of the season, and he will come up against one of Ajax’s brightest young talent in Dolberg. The 19-year-old has bagged an impressive 23 goals in his breakout season, with an average of one goal every other game in the Europa League. Smalling has the edge in the air, having won 19 out his 25 headed duels in the competition, compared to Dolberg’s 17 out of 40, but the Dane’s 14 out of 15 take-on success rate might prove a handful for Smalling, and his ability to bring teammates into play could be useful in catching the defender out.



Marcus Rashford v Matthijs de Ligt

In a rare turn of events, Rashford is likely to find himself facing off against a defender even younger than him. 17-year-old de Ligt only made his senior debut this season, and has been playing more for the second team than the first team, but has since cemented himself as a starting centre back ever since, through some solid defensive performances. De Ligt has averaged an impressive 10 defensive actions in the Europa League and has won the majority of his duels, both on the ground and in the air. Rashford has not been any less impressive, however. He has scored and assisted five goals in the last two rounds of the competition and has the searing pace and the work rate to pressure defences; attributes that could force errors in a defender as inexperienced as de Ligt.

Written by Adimurti Pramana


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