Ajax team aims to relive past glories in Europa League final

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 file photo, Ajax's Kasper Dolberg, left, and Legia's Michal Kopczynski challenge for the ball, during the Europa League round of 32 first leg soccer match between Legia Warsaw and Ajax Amsterdam at Stadion Wojska Polskiego in Warsaw, Poland. Ajax coach Peter Bosz has transformed Ajax in his first season in charge and led the team to the Europa League final. Ajax has uncovered a Scandinavian star in Dolberg. The 19-year-old striker who already has six goals in the Europa League this season and whose cool finishing has earned comparisons to Marco van Basten. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

Ajax coach Peter Bosz has transformed Ajax in his first season in charge and led the team to the Europa League final

AMSTERDAM — A year ago, Ajax could dominate possession but struggled to stamp its authority on quality opponents.

After one season in charge, coach Peter Bosz has transformed the long-dormant Dutch powerhouse into a dynamic team of young players who swarm forward in attack and are just as aggressive in defense.

What has he changed to achieve the turnaround?

"Almost everything," Bosz said ahead of his team's Europa League final against Manchester United in Stockholm on Wednesday.

"When I started, I knew how to play, but I didn't know with which players," Bosz said. "Now the players understand exactly what I mean - pressing, high pressing and high ball tempo, how we build up from behind, these kinds of things."

That philosophy is hardly new to Ajax. It's the swift-passing style of play that won the Amsterdam club three straight European Cups in the early 1970s and the Champions League in 1995.

But since its 1-0 victory over AC Milan in Vienna 22 years ago, and a loss on penalties against Juventus in the Champions League final the following year, Ajax has been largely left behind by free-spending European powers.

Bosz believes his team's trip to Stockholm to play Manchester United is proof clubs with limited budgets but talented young players can still have an impact, at least in Europe's second-tier club competition.

"For a long time people in Holland said it's not possible for a Dutch team to play any finals anymore because the financial difference between the big clubs in Europe and the Dutch clubs is so big now," he said. "But we've made it."

Ajax, runner-up to Feyenoord in the Dutch league this season, is back in a European final thanks to its renowned youth program, which has for decades churned out talented stars, and the club's knack for scouting stars of the future.

Amsterdam was the first overseas stop for Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will miss the final in his home country because of injury. Ajax has uncovered another Scandinavian star in Kasper Dolberg, the 19-year-old striker who already has six goals in the Europa League this season and whose cool finishing has earned comparisons to Marco van Basten. Dolberg scored a goal in each leg of Ajax's semifinal victory over Lyon.

Partnering Dolberg up front will be 21-year-old Burkina Faso forward Bertrand Traore, who is on loan from Chelsea and set to again run into the manager who lured him to London - Jose Mourinho.

"He gave me so many chances to stay in Chelsea. I am excited to meet him again," Traore said.

Ajax's mix of home-grown talent and bargain basement - by current European standards - signings is also familiar. The team coached by Louis van Gaal that won the Champions League in 1995 also blended youngsters like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert with veteran leader Frank Rijkaard and unsung overseas players like Finidi George and Jari Litmanen.

Davinson Sanchez, a 20-year-old Colombian who has been one of Ajax's most consistent defenders all season, is the only player in the team with experience of a major final - he won the Copa Libertadores in July 2016 with Atletico Nacional.

"We're in the final because we've worked unbelievably hard. Some people think we're too young, we don't have enough international experience. We may be inexperienced, but we make up for it with our talent," Sanchez said. "We believe that experience isn't everything. That you can get a long way with talent."

Mourinho's squad has plenty of talent. But the coach has repeatedly complained that his team's hectic schedule this season is taking a toll on his players - the final in Stockholm will be United's 64th match of the season.

Bosz's players have had a busy season, too, but they've had well over a week without a competitive match to prepare for the final.

"Instead of looking at Manchester, I am rather looking at my team," Bosz said. "And the most important is that we are fit, we are fresh, nobody is injured, and that's the great way to prepare the team for the next Wednesday."

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