There are men with a foot in both camps for tonight’s Europa League final. Daley Blind is one, another is Wesley Sneijder.
José Mourinho’s main man at Inter Milan continues to revere the treble-winning manager to whom he dedicated his Ballon D’Or trophy in 2010. He has been linked with a move to United on several occasions.
Yet Sneijder is also the most distinguished modern graduate of the Ajax academy, having joined the club’s nursery at the age of seven and gone on to play 180 matches for the club before moving to Real Madrid.
A huge fan of the Ajax approach, Sneijder believes that manager Peter Bosz is in that same tradition, although he also pays tribute to his predecessor.
“When you arrive in a Europa League final, it means you have done a good job,” he says.
“You can see the work of Bosz in this Ajax side, but also the hand of Frank de Boer, who won so many titles before leaving. Frank was the creator and Bosz completed the job.”
Ajax’s main attacking threat is not Dutch but Danish — Kasper Dolberg, who joined the club two years ago and is still only 19.
“I like Dolberg a lot,” says Sneijder.
“He’s always there where he should be, and is always scoring goals (23 this season, including 7 in Europe).
“But he’s not the only quality player at the club. Ajax have reached this final as a team, playing as a team. They have young players, yet on the pitch they seem mature for their age.
"New players such as Frenkie de Jong, (Abdelhak) Nouri, Justin Kluivert, (Donny) Van de Beek are all very young but they’ve already played a lot. And then there are players such as Davinson Sanchez, André Onana, Davy Klaassen who could now do well at one of the big Italian or Spanish clubs.”
Sneijder believes that this could be the start of a new cycle for Ajax, but success could also mean that players depart, just as when he made his breakthrough at the club.
“Our Ajax were also a good side. At that time there was me, John Heitinga, Nigel de Jong, Rafael Van der Vaart. Now it’s much the same…
“But it’s not as easy as it used to be to create a cycle and win. If you have success you immediately lose someone and you need to be lucky with the new ones who come in. This time good players have arrived at the right moment.”
Michele Santoni was one of Frank de Boer’s support staff during a five-year spell at Ajax and also in his brief time in charge of Inter last year, and he picks their two midfielders, the captain, Davy Klaassen, and Morocco international Hakim Ziyech, as key men to watch, possibly along with winger Justin Kluivert, who turned 18 just three weeks ago.
“There is so much talent in this side,” he says, “starting with Ziyech, the creator taken from Twente who has changed Bosz’s style of play. But I’d say that Klaassen symbolises the team, really because the Amsterdamers like to identify with the lads who have grown up with the club.”
Kluivert is the son of Ajax legend Patrick, who won the Champions League in his first season alongside Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, and Edwin Van Der Sar, before moving to Milan and then Barcelona.
That sort of status could inhabit a teenager just starting out in the first team, but since his debut in January, Kluivert has already played in 20 matches, including the two games against Schalke last month and brief appearances in both legs of the semi-final against Lyon.
He looks like his father but, as Santoni says, is a different type of player:
“He’s fast, and pacey, the typical 7 or 11. With all due respect, I’ve seen him do things in the style of Johan Cruyff. He always knows what to do on the ball, and he’s afraid of nothing.”
The fear for this young and adventurous Ajax side is that they can be caught out at the back, especially given their high defensive line. But they are also confident that they can give a good account of themselves.
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