STOCKHOLM, May 22 (Reuters) - The shadow of Louis Van Gaal will loom over Manchester United and Ajax when the two teams coached by the Dutchman meet in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
Van Gaal left contrasting legacies at the two clubs. He steered a vibrant Ajax side to the 1995 Champions League title but was sacked unceremoniously by United in 2016 after two difficult years in charge.
His torrid spell at Old Trafford, marked by uninspiring and cagey football, was in stark contrast with a glorious 1991-1997 run at Ajax, where he won the UEFA Cup in 1992 before capturing Europe’s blue ribband trophy three years later.
The Dutch side, then boasting 18-year old Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf and keeper Edwin Van Der Sar, are appearing in their first European final after two decades of relative obscurity in Europe.
Meanwhile United are scrambling to salvage their season by earning a place in next year’s Champions League after finishing outside the top four in the Premier League.
United, who dominated English football for years under Alex Ferguson, have endured their own tough spell since the Scot who guided the club to a record 20th English league title departed in 2013.
His replacement David Moyes lasted less than a season before Van Gaal was hailed as the club’s would-be saviour when he took over in July 2014.
But the 65-year old from Amsterdam soon lost the hearts of many United fans with a cautious style of play that saw United scraping out a top-four finish in his first season in charge, followed by a wretched second year when they finished fifth.
Not even winning the 2016 FA Cup could save Van Gaal’s job as United missed out on the Champions League for the second time in three years, a failure current manager Jose Mourinho is under pressure to rectify in Stockholm.
United enter the final as favourites, but their performances under Mourinho have resembled those under Van Gaal despite heavy spending which saw them lure Paul Pogba back from Juventus for a world record fee of 105 million euros.
Meanwhile, Ajax, assembled by coach Peter Bosz for a fifth of Pogba’s price tag, reached the final with football strikingly similar to the attacking verve instilled by Van Gaal, with 19-year old Danish striker Kasper Dolberg excelling.
Editing by Richard Lough