An unusual evening of football for Manchester United, as they began the next stage of this season’s European adventure in unfamiliar territory. With much made of their place on Channel 5, Thursday nights, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men made the trip to Ajax to begin their run in the Europa League,a competition that, whilst not the Champion’s League, is still a tournament that Ferguson has acknowledged as one that he will take seriously and one that he hopes to win this season. Certainly, one must admit how strange it was that the match was concluded by 8 pm and to have the game on Thursday rather than the usual Tuesday/Wednesday, potentially causing issues with the Premiership line up. No matter, the competition appears healthy with a strong list of European sides as well as the English offering in the form of Manchester City and Stoke. Ajax, another high profile name in the draw, were considered one of the tougher sides to come up against in the tournament, but the truth of the matter is that they are a side struggling domestically as of late, lying 6th and considered to be a far cry from the European heavyweights they were not so long ago. Regardless, there was no doubt that Ferguson would take this for granted, acknowledging the side’s history and that must take into account the fact that in European tournaments domestic performance is not always a reflection of how they would play out on the European stage. United made a few changes from the side that beat Liverpool the weekend before. Notably, Patrice Evra was rested for the occasion, with Ferguson citing the emotional stresses of the Liverpool game after certain incidents.
United started with David De Gea in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans sitting in front of him, with the returning Phil Jones and Fabio Da Silva on the right and left respectively. In midfield, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, with Ashley Young and Nani occupying the wings, and finally, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney leading the line up front. A strong side then, albeit one with many returning from injury, with match fitness possibly being a concern, although the bench was suitably armed to provide adequate cover as and when it was needed. The first half was a tale of frustration for United, as they tried to play a passing game but struggled to maintain possession, often giving the ball away needlessly and failing in their attempts for a break through on goal. Ajax certainly started the brighter of the two, pressing for the ball early on and looking sharp in breaking against United’s play. In fact it was the Dutch side that had the best of the chances, most notably forcing a superb save from David De Gea as De Jong let fly for the top corner as the young Spaniard got both hands to the ball in a flying dive to push it away for a corner. United were largely wasteful, with corners and crosses proving a particular weakness, with Rooney providing the main threat going forward.
Phil Jones’ efforts on the right with dogged persistence to win the ball were laudable but alas United went in at the break with both sides goalless, some would have argued rather fortunately. The second half began and immediately there was an improvement in United’s play, far more positive and more effective, perhaps the result of a half time team talk to get the squad to perk up. It did not take long for the pressure to pay off, as Nani’s cross came off a defender and landed at Ashley Young, who took a touch inwards in the box, to finish low between the legs of the ‘keeper and give his side a 0-1 lead, and a much-neeeded confidence boost. A change was made immediately, as the ever-green Scholes replaced Cleverley. Soon after, Valencia was introduced to the game in place of Ashley Young. His involvement did not last long, but managed to find time to set up the second goal, winning the ball going forward, playing in Hernandez and Rooney, who exchanged passes for the young Mexican striker to fire through the legs of the ‘keeper once again to give his side a comfortable 0-2 lead to take back to Old Trafford. However, as the players were celebrating, Valencia went straight off, an injury that was later revealed to be a hamstring problem that will rule the Ecuadorian out for a month. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) David De Gea – growing in confidence
Since the injury to Anders Lindegaard, David De Gea has been able to get a run in the side and in the last couple of games has appeared to show observers what he is capable, rather than the much maligned goalkeeper apparently incapable of much if some sections of the cynical media are to be believed. On Thursday night, he made a telling contribution with his aforementioned save from De Jong being a particular highlight. In all, it was not one of his most challenging games, but the young ‘keeper dealt with everything that came his way appropriately and displayed some high quality distribution, a well known strength in his game. Indeed, we must acknowledge that he does have his weaknesses that, given his age, will no doubt iron out as time passes and his strength and experience build. For the time being, be in no doubt that his stock is rising.
2) Returns from injury, a boost to the side
One point that was made when the starting line up was announced was the number of players in the line up that were now returning from injury, certainly a welcome boost to the team at a crucial time in the season. Among those brought back included Cleverley, Fabio Da Silva, Nani, Phil Jones as well as Ashley Young who had only recently come back from an injury dating back before Christmas. One must acknowledge that with players coming back from absences there is always likely to be some rust and a deficit in match fitness and it showed in certain areas, with sloppy play early on and the understandable withdrawal of Cleverley and Young as a full 90 minutes was never going to be a realistic occurrence given the quality on the bench.
3) Nani – a frustrating evening
One point of issue in what was a very ordinary first half of football from United’s perspective, was the lack of effectiveness out on the wings, with Nani in particular coming in for criticism with his crosses and corners becoming an area of frustration amongst fans. It cannot be denied that he was wasteful, and when compared to the consistency of Valencia’s delivery and the fruit that it bares. It is perhaps fair to describe the winger as “complacent ” on occasion and fans would be forgiven for levelling this complaint at him during the game. However, it may argued that he too, lacked some match practice, with some acknowledging that his lack of action in recent weeks only to be thrust into a European game would likely mean a standard in play not quite on a par with what we have come to expect of him.
4) Phil Jones – a welcome return
During the season, Phil Jones has featured prominently in a variety of different positions, including central defence, right back and central midfield, all of which he has taken on with enthusiasm and produced quality performances. For one of the side’s more influential players, his return from injury was always going to be something that fans and teammates alike would relish and against Ajax he was tasked with taking up the right back position. His performance was certainly energetic, doing his defensive duties as well as providing a threat going forward, providing Nani with support and trying to make avenues of attack. Fighting for every ball and putting in a strong shift it was definitely a welcome sight to see the young English defender make his way back into the side.
5) A comfortable victory, but a satisfying performance?
To come away with a 2 goal advantage away from home against a side with the history of Ajax would ordinarily be something to be satisfied with. However, on this occasion one gets the impression that Sir Alex Ferguson will not be entirely happy with what he saw. Regardless of their history, United did not come up against a side of immense quality in Ajax. Given their league position and certain pre-match comments one would have thought that the game could well be there for the taking and although on a one-off occasion this is unlikely to be the case, the performance suggested United could and should have done better. Undoubtedly, Ajax were the better side in the first half, troubling the United defence on more than one occasion and could have found themselves going in to the half time break with the lead. But the first half was as much about United’s sloppiness as it was Ajax looking dangerous. The second half a was a marked improvement in standard of play and provided far more encouragement, and whilst Ajax are not quite out of the tie by any means, United will at least be pleased to go back to Old Trafford with the advantage they gained in Amsterdam.
Final Note – Valencia out for a month
Recent games have seen Valencia emerge as one of the most influential members of the side. His consistent crossing and great control has been complimented by his increasing competency in going forward and providing an extra attacking threat. He has been one of the best players, if not the best in recent times, and his injury in the Ajax game will no doubt be seen as a blow to the side with crucial games coming up. It was confirmed he will be out for a month, and one hopes that Nani and Young both provide an adequate alternative to a pivotal member of the side of late.