Following United’s shock exit from the Champions League group stages earlier in the season, the reds travelled to Amsterdam to face Ajax in the unknown quantity that is the Uefa Europa League, the only competition missing from United’s trophy cabinet. Despite the competition being the butt of many a joke, and lacking the glamour of the Champions League, the prospect of a trip to the Dam had many reds salivating, and a large travelling contingent was assured. Having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the previous round, United are without a fixture this weekend, and therefore took to fielding a relatively strong line up, including the likes of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and the returning Tom Cleverley, having not started a game for the club since October.
With a 50,000 plus crowd creating a spine tingling atmosphere, United struggled to control the game with the tempo they would have demanded, against what was a relatively poor Ajax side currently languishing in 6th place in the Dutch Eredivise. United appeared content to allow the home side possession in their half of the field, only pressing when the Dutch dared to venture past the half way line, which did little in the way of a spectacle. Javier Hernandez was well thwarted by the onrushing Vermeer in the Ajax goal, denying the reds a rare glimpse at goal, in what was a half of frustration in the attacking third for United. It took until the half hour mark for either keeper to be fully tested, as De Jong’s thundering shot from 35 yards out required the acrobatic intervention of David De Gea in the United goal to preserve parity. A spell of Ajax pressure in the closing stages of the half threatened to disturb Ferguson’s half time team talk, and a late penalty shout against Rio Ferdinand, who collided with Ozbiliz just inside the area, did little to calm the nerves after a poor first half performance from the visitors.
Having likely received the proverbial ‘hairdryer’ treatment, United began the second half with much greater purpose and tempo, with Phil Jones and Fabio visibly attacking at every available opportunity down the flanks to provide support for Nani and Ashley Young. It was the Young/Fabio combination which ultimately lead to the United opener, with the two combining well to force a corner, from which a poor clearance allowed Nani to cross to Young, who shimmied inside and slotted his shot through the keeper. A good hour run out for Tom Cleverley ended with the introduction of Paul Scholes, who controlled the tempo for United as the reds looked comfortable with a goal lead, against a willing but unable Ajax attack. Antonio Valencia’s introduction bore immediate fruits for United, as the Ecuadorian fed Hernandez, who exchanged a 1-2 with Rooney, allowing the Mexican to slot home, albeit fortuitously, and all but guarantee United’s passage into the next round barring a miraculous turn around at Old Trafford in a weeks time. Valencia’s contribution was a costly one for United however, with the winger being forced off in the aftermath of the goal with what as confirmed by Ferguson is an injury which will keep him out for the best part of a month. It was a blemish on what was a good solid nights work for the reds, and should see them progress to the next round of the competition, one which they will now have a keen desire to win.
DDG – 6 Quiet evening, one world class save.
Jones – 6 Solid return from injury.
Ferdinand – 6 Untroubled through ought.
Evans – 6 Another solid display.
Fabio – 6 Impetuous at times, but attacking threat.
Nani – 6 Evidently lacked match sharpness.
Carrick – 7 Another commanding performance.
Cleverley – 7 Welcome return to the side.
Young – 7 MOTM Well taken goal and plenty of determination in performance.
Rooney – 6 United’s main attacking focus.
Hernandez – 7 Deserved goal for intelligent movement.
Scholes – 6 Controlled the last half an hour.
Valencia – Unfortunately injured.