24th May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Manchester United's season was powered by the goals of Zlatan Ibrahimovic up until the point the Swedish striker suffered a torn cruciate knee ligament against Anderlecht in April. Now, the Red Devils face the prospect of having their 2016-17 campaign shattered by a 19-year-old prodigy labelled "the new Ibrahimovic".
Kasper Dolberg, widely regarded as one of the best young players on the Continent, will line up for Ajax when the Dutch side take on Jose Mourinho's men in the Europa League final in Stockholm tonight. The Danish striker has bagged 23 goals in all competitions this season, earning him rave reviews and attracting interest from Barcelona, Manchester City and Liverpool among others.
What makes the young forward's rise to prominence this season all the more remarkable is the fact that he is way ahead of schedule. Dolberg's immense talent was no secret within the Ajax academy, but few foresaw him becoming such a key player for the Amsterdam club this season.
When Arkadiusz Milik was sold to Napoli last summer in a deal worth more than €30 million, Colombian forward Mateo Cassierra and Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore were brought in to fill the void left by the Polish striker's departure.
But Dolberg's early season form soon made him undroppable for manager Peter Bosz, with his technical mastery, surprisingly mature physicality and cool finishing seeing him become a player Ajax would seek to build around, leapfrogging both Cassiera and Traore in the pecking order.
Forty-seven games and 23 goals later, the one-cap Denmark international recently received the Johan Cruyff Trophy, given out each year to the most outstanding young player in Holland. Former recipients of the award include the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie becoming part of such an illustrious list does not flatter Dolberg, such is his talent and potential.
At 6ft 1Â½ins tall, Dolberg is already physically equipped to deal with the rigours of high level senior football, while the technical aspects of his game make him stand out above many of his peers.
Where most players his age of full of youthful exuberance and energy, yet remain raw and inconsistent, Dolberg is the model of composure and maturity: when through on goal, he finishes with the assured aplomb of a seasoned veteran; his movement and ability to find space makes him appear as though he is playing a different game to those around him; his intelligent use of the ball and subtlety of touch is something that most players only come to fully comprehend after years of coaching and first-team experience.
Capable of playing out wide when required, Dolberg, though not lightning quick, has the close control and dribbling ability to provide width for his team and is always willing to tirelessly run the channels in order to open up space for his team-mates. When cutting inside, the teenager is especially dangerous due to his knack of finding the corner of the net from any angle and ability to slide through-balls to create scoring chances for others.
However, there is no doubt that Dolberg is at his most comfortable when playing centrally as a striker. He does not operate as a conventional No.9, though. Far from being the kind of fox-in-the-box poacher who waits on the shoulder of his marker to sniff out opportunities to score, the Ajax man prefers to take up a slightly deeper starting position and involve himself in his team's build-up play.
With his graceful movement, awareness and ability to link midfield and attack, Dolberg has many of the attributes associated with a traditional No.10, yet he also possesses several qualities that make him an effective goal-scorer, ensuring that his optimum starting position is closer to goal.
Dolberg's impressive performances have led to rumours of a potential £20 million move away from the Amsterdam Arena this summer, with Ajax's Europa League final opponents and their local rivals both named as potential suitors.
But the player himself insists he would rather stay with Ajax and continue his development for the time being.
"No, it's too big a step to go to City or United now," he told FourFourTwo earlier this month when asked about a possible move to the Premier League.
"It's important to keep on playing, as I don't know what could happen in the future."
The level-headed youngster also insisted that he will only leave Ajax in the future if the right offer is received from the right club.
"I have not got a dream league," he continues. "It's important which kind of club is keen -- in terms of playing style and also how it is at the club.
"You look at the whole package."
Despite his protestations, it would be no surprise to see a swathe of Europe's elite clubs making a play for Dolberg's signature at the end of the current season. Liverpool manager JÃ¼rgen Klopp, for one, has admitted that the Dane is on his radar.
"Who doesn't know Kasper Dolberg? You can't play at Ajax without being noticed," the former Borussia Dortmund coach told Danish publication Ekstra Bladet in February.
"Kasper Dolberg has a very great future. He is a fantastic player."
For now, Dolberg's focus will remain trained fully on helping his side in their quest to upset the odds and overcome Man United irrespective of their reported interest in him to secure a first major European honour since Louis van Gaal's famous team won the Champions League in 1995.
There are several players within this vibrant young Ajax side who United will have to pay close attention to in the Europa League final, none more so than Dolberg.
19 Year Old Kasper Dolberg Looks to Upset Man Utd in the Europa League Final
24th May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.