Football Features

What happened next? The Ajax rising stars who lost out to Man Utd in 2017’s Europa League final

By Steve Jennings

Published: 15:59, 3 May 2021

It feels like only yesterday when Ajax secured a first Champions League semi-final berth since 1996/97.

The Dutch underdogs, during their 2018/19 campaign, somehow thwarted Juventus over two legs, winning 2-1 in Turin and securing a 3-2 aggregate victory over Cristiano Ronaldo and company.

That incredible young team clearly made huge strides since falling at the final hurdle in the 2016/17 Europa League against Manchester United and they came agonisingly close (mere seconds even) to playing in the final of Europe’s top-tier competition.

Indeed, with just a few personnel tweaks and a change in manager Ajax developed into one of the continent’s most talented outfits.

But exactly how much have they changed since that Europa League final defeat to Manchester United? Which players flew the coop and who stuck around? And how are they all getting on?

We’ve looked into every player who started for Ajax against the Red Devils and analysed their development since.

Goalkeeper: Andre Onana

Age: 25
Current club: Ajax

Andre Onana has kept 60 clean sheets in 142 Eredivisie appearances since joining Ajax from Barcelona’s academy. He’s an integral part of Erik ten Hag’s team, but like so many in Amsterdam is a moment away from leaving the club, where the Cameroonian shot-stopper has lifted two league titles. His 2020/21 campaign has been curtailed due to a 12-month football-wide ban.

Right-back: Joel Veltman

Age: 29
Current club: Brighton & Hove Albion

A graduate of Ajax’s esteemed academy, Joel Veltman started out in central defence before former boss Frank de Boer converted him into a right-back, where he played the majority of his games prior to joining Premier League outfit Brighton. He has gone on to become a key member of Graham Potter’s squad and remains a regular with the Netherlands at international level.

Centre-back: Davinson Sanchez

Age: 24
Current club: Tottenham Hotspur

Davinson Sanchez spent just one season at Ajax before being snapped up by Tottenham, who were suitably impressed by the Colombian’s Europa League final performance. That’s despite Jose Mourinho revealing Manchester United wanted Sanchez on the ball as he was deemed the side’s worst passer.

Indeed, he could be better in possession, but the 24-year-old settled remarkably quickly in England given his age and inexperience. He is currently considered a lesser defender than former Ajax star Toby Alderweireld by Spurs fans, but there is a feeling Sanchez could yet develop into one of the Premier League’s leading centre-backs.

Centre-back: Matthijs de Ligt

Age: 21
Current club: Juventus

To have made over 100 senior club appearances at the age of 19 is generally unheard of. But such is Matthijs De Ligt’s level, the Dutch starlet was already undroppable before leaving his teenage years behind him. He was a colossus in their incredible Champions League 2018/19 semi-final run, especially against Juventus, who the following summer beat off stiff competition for his signature. De Ligt hasn’t hit the same heights since moving to Turin, but is steadily improving and adjusting.

Left-back: Jairo Riedewald

Age: 24
Current club: Crystal Palace

Jairo Riedewald made just 17 appearances in the Premier League for Crystal Palace last season and things took a while to work out after moving to England immediately straight after Ajax’s defeat to Manchester United. This term, he’s been a mainstay in Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

Riedewald scored one goal and provided an assist on the way to the 2016/17 Europa League final.

Central midfield: Davy Klaassen

Age: 28
Current club: Ajax

There was plenty of excitement on Merseyside when Everton completed the signing of Davy Klaassen from Ajax in the summer of 2017. But the Netherlands international turned out to be a huge flop and was sold to Werder Bremen after just a year.

Klaassen was debatably the star player in Ajax’s 2016/17 side, scoring 20 goals across all competitions, including two in the Europa League. But he didn’t settle in England and found his minutes limited under both Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce. He did much better in Germany and has since returned to Ajax to play a prominent role in their latest title win.

Central midfield: Lasse Schone

Age: 34
Current club: Heerenveen

A free acquisition, no one could have foreseen the career Lasse Schone would enjoy in the Dutch capital. He’d leave following their best Champions League showing for more than two decades. Schone’s lasting legacy was the club naming their ‘goal of the season’ prize after him. After a short spell with Genoa, the veteran midfielder is back in the Netherlands with Heerenveen.

Attacking midfield: Hakim Ziyech

Age: 28
Current club: Chelsea

A creative genius during his time with the record 35-time Dutch champions, Ziyech joined Chelsea last summer but not before registering 82 assists in 165 matches for the Dutch outfit. He’s had a mixed time in England so far but can be a match-winner for Thomas Tuchel on his day.

Forward: Bertrand Traore

Age: 25
Current club: Aston Villa

Bertrand Traore spent the 2016/17 season on loan at Ajax from Chelsea. He scored twice in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Lyon, the club he would go on to join permanently just a few months later. In total, Traore scored 13 goals in 39 appearances for Ajax.

He built on that with 18 goals across all competitions in his first season at Lyon but went off the boil in his next two. He’s now getting back on track in the Premier League with Aston Villa.

Forward: Kasper Dolberg

Age: 23
Current club: Nice

Strong competition for places ultimately saw the once-promising Danish marksman, who bagged 45 goals across 145 matches for Ajax, take his talents to south France where he’s slowly beginning to fulfil that potential many saw in him.

Forward: Amin Younes

Age: 27
Current club: Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Napoli)

After 100 appearances for Ajax, Amin Younes left Amsterdam for Naples. To date, his career in Italy has been hindered by a series of niggling injuries; the German has made just 21 Serie A appearances, scoring four goals. The 27-year-old has found more success back on loan in his homeland with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Younes helped Ajax reach the 2016/17 Europa League final with four goals and four assists in the competition and has plaued eight times for his country to date, scoring twice.

Sub: David Neres

Age: 24
Current club: Ajax

David Neres has scored 34 goals and provided 31 assists in 103 Eredivisie appearances so far. He has scored four times in the Champions League, including Ajax’s crucial goal in the aforementioned first leg draw with Juventus. The Brazilian played just 89 minutes of Europa League football in 2016/17.

Sub: Donny van de Beek

Age: 24
Current club: Manchester United

In their 2018/19 Champions League quarter-final second leg, only Cristiano Ronaldo (6) attempted more shots than Donny van de Beek’s four, two of which were on target and one of which went in. He’s since completed a big move to Manchester United but has been strangely ostracised, starting just two Premier League games so far.


Sub: Frenkie de Jong

Age: 23
Current club: Barcelona

It is perhaps ironic that Frenkie de Jong played the fewest minutes in the 2016/17 Europa League final of any player on this list. He is, after all, the man Barcelona have chosen to revolutionise their midfield.

De Jong, who came on as an 81st-minute substitute against Manchester United, dazzled Europe as the Amsterdammers reached the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals. His outstanding performances followed him to Spain where is the metronome that keeps the Blaugrana midfield ticking.


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