For the first time in their history, Manchester United have reached the final of the Europa League, and their opponents, Ajax, are fairly unfamiliar, too.
They are two of European’s grandest old clubs, both have won the Champions League multiple times, and yet this is only the third time they’ve ever been paired in European competition. Both previous times came in the UEFA Cup / Europa League, too.
Not once have they met in the continent’s biggest competition.
Maybe it’s the sign of the times. In the last few seasons, Spanish dominance over both European cups has led to accusations of decline in English football, certainly when it comes to Europe. Among the Premier League clubs, the Europa League is seen as a distraction rather than a trophy worth winning. And yet, since the turn of the century, only Spanish teams have had more final appearances than English teams. Indeed, both nations have had six separate teams in Europa league finals.
So much for English clubs looking down their noses at the competition. Even before the winners of the competition gained a Champions League place, England were sending teams to the final, but surely it’s no coincidence that both Liverpool and Manchester United have reached the final of the Europa League in the last two seasons: the prize is now bigger than it’s ever been.
The final, in just under a fortnight’s time, will see parallels to the turn of the millennium, too. The last time English teams played in back-to-back finals in the competition was in 2000 and 2001, when Arsenal lost to Galatasaray before Liverpool beat Alaves the next season. Those years were followed by English dominance over Europe in the next few seasons, as Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all reached Champions League finals within the next decade.
Since then, times have been harder for English clubs. Manchester United, despite winning the Champions League in 2008 and reaching the final in 2009 and 2011, have seen more action than they’re used to in the Europa League. And whilst it’s tempting to see that as part of the post-Alex Ferguson transition, that’s not strictly true. The last time United played Ajax was in the Europa League in 2012.
In fact, United’s results against the Dutch side are mixed: played four, won two. Both times they’ve met in the knockout rounds of the Europa League have ended in two victories apiece, yet it’s the Red Devils who have progressed to the next round every time on aggregate.
Both times United played Ajax, they were knocked out of the competition by the eventual finalists: Juventus in 1976/77, and Athletic Bilbao in 2011/12. Even last year, Louis van Gaal’s side were knocked out by eventual finalists Liverpool.
In 2012, Alex Ferguson described the Europa League as ‘new territory’ for his team, who had played in the Champions League every season since 1996. By now, it’s less novel, but still a competition United have never won.
Their history in the competition doesn’t make for great reading, but perhaps the fact that this is the second time in two years that an English side has made the final shows the Premier League is starting to become more of a force in European football, just like it was in 2001 when Liverpool won the UEFA Cup.
The Europa League may not be familiar territory for United, but for English football, we’ve been here before.