Ajax's young stars ready for Europa League test against Manchester United
By Patrick Surlis
Last Updated: 24/05/17 7:46am
As Manchester United and Ajax prepare for the Europa League final on Wednesday, several of Europe's brightest young prospects will be readying themselves for an early graduation.
Both clubs have well-earned reputations for youth development but it is the Dutch side who have truly embraced their exciting new generation of talent.
They beat Willem II 3-1 on the final day of the Eredivisie season with the youngest starting XI in league history with an average age of 20 years and 139 days.
Ajax's starting XI v Willem II - May 14, 2017
|Matthijs de Ligt||17|
|Donny van de Beek||20|
|Frenkie De Jong||20|
|Average age||20 years and 139 days|
It included teenagers Justin Kluivert - son of Ajax legend Patrick - Kasper Dolberg and Matthijs de Ligt, a 17-year-old defender linked to RB Leipzig.
"Head coach Peter Bosz has a very clear idea of what he wants from his team," Michiel Jongsma, Dutch football editor at Benefoot, told Sky Sports.
"He is very much a Johan Cruyff-minded type of manager. When he sees young players that he likes, he will give them a chance."
Led by 24-year-old captain Davy Klaassen, they finished second to league winners Feyenoord by a single point.
Dolberg is their star, the Denmark international propelled into the first team following the departure of Viktor Fischer to Middlesbrough.
The 19-year-old has made the most of the opportunity, scoring 16 league goals, and he was recently named Ajax's Young Player of the Season and Eredivisie Talent of the Year.
"Everyone is talking about Kasper Dolberg," Jongsma added. "I think he is a magnificent talent - he's sometimes described as a target man but that is selling him short.
"He is incredibly complete, a good dribbler, great technique and so intelligent with his movement."
He's developed a formidable understanding with Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore and talented winger Amin Younes, who will be in Germany's Confederations Cup squad this summer.
Their free-flowing style of play harks back to the Ajax of old and the presence of a teenage Kluivert only reinforces that historical link to the club's famous past.
"The Ajax sides of the 1970s and 1980s were a great influence on me," Bosz told UEFA.com.
"That was the time when Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff were at Ajax, and it was fantastic, very attractive football, which we all enjoyed watching. That really influenced the way I look at football now."
At the back, 20-year-old Davinson Sanchez has drawn comparison to Jaap Stam.
The Colombia defender, who turned down interest from Barcelona to join Ajax last summer, is likely to be the man tasked with keeping tabs on Marcus Rashford.
"In the last 18 months he has played almost 80 matches," said Jongsma.
"He won the Copa Libertadores so he's had a roller-coaster time. He was courted by Barca and you can clearly see why.
"He's a very good prospect and surely one that will go for big money in the future."
Named Ajax's Player of the Year in his first campaign, Sanchez seems destined for the top.
In April he said: "People in South America know Ajax is a nice gateway to a good career in Europe. But I only just got here and I want to achieve something before making the next step."
De Ligt, a product of Ajax's academy, is already a full Netherlands international at age 17 and has been compared to Jan Vertonghen and Ronald Koeman.
"He has a wonderful future ahead of him," Bosz said earlier this season. "He is well-advanced for his age - he showed that in training and that's why we selected him for the first team."
Then there's Brazil U20 attacker David Neres, a £10m January signing from Sao Paulo. He is more likely to feature from the bench but has made a big impression already, scoring three league goals in just five starts.
It's been 22 years since Ajax last won a major European trophy so can this group of talented youngsters end that run on Wednesday?
"They see themselves as underdogs but they feel they have a chance," said Jongsma. "They will relish that role but I can't see them going into the match with a defensive game-plan.
"They will do what they usually do. United are favourites but Ajax have a good chance."
As a disciple of Cruyff, expect Bosz's team to play on the front foot at the Friends Arena.
The Ajax boss explained his philosophy on Monday: "I want my team to take the initiative, I want them to be dominant, keep the pressure on, win the ball as quickly as they can; and when we have it, I want them to position themselves well, build up from the back and create a lot of opportunities, and of course, score a lot of goals."
Fielding a whole team of players little older than Rashford is impressive but ultimately just a statistical footnote. For this Ajax team to be remembered their potential must translate into success and that requires trophies.
A well-known pundit once said, 'You can't win anything with kids' and Ajax's inexperience could prove harmful rather than helpful in Stockholm. They are up against a team of seasoned internationals, including the world's most expensive player.
But United should know better than to underestimate their opponents. After all, they were the ones to prove that old saying wrong.