The Europa League comes to Old Trafford. Manchester United welcomed Dutch side Ajax to the Theatre of Dreams n Thursday evening, holding a 2-0 aggregate lead from the encounter away from home, with many expecting them to comfortably make their way into the next round. Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a more youthful set up compared to recent games. Despite some speculation, Paul Pogba was not handed a starting place, nor a place on the bench for that matter. David De Gea kept his place in goal, with a back four consisting of Rafael and Fabio Da Silva occupying the full back positions, with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling the chosen partnership centrally. In midfield, Tom Cleverley, having recently returned from injury, was partnered with Ji Sung Park in midfield, with Ashley Young and Nani playing out wide. Up front, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez lead the line to spearhead the United attack. The game got off to a lively start, with both sides looking t make an immediate impact, and it was United to strike first 5 minutes into the contest, with Berbatov playing a smart ball to play in Hernandez, who took a step in to beat his defender and coolly finish to give his side a 1-0 lead and a 3-0 aggregate lead. The perfect start with the possibility of a turnaround looking ever more unlikely. The game never truly settled from there, remaining open with both sides enjoying attacking opportunities, with Ajax looking by far the more threatening. Back by an extremely vocal support the Dutch side pushed for an equaliser and deservedly got one just before half time as Ozbiliz fired a low shot past David De Gea into the bottom corner from just outside the area. There were arguments of handball in the build up and whether or not the slight push from Park countered the belief, but regardless, the score going into the break was 1-1 and although still with a cushioned lead, there was plenty to play for as the second half got started. Kick off and the second half of action began with United attempting to have an immediate impact by pushing forward, using Nani out on the wing to create a meaningful chance. However, it did not last long as Ajax once again began to take control, their dominance most obvious in midfield as United’s defence looking less than convincing with the various threats that the opposition provided. United had their chances, notably when Nani fired at an angle on the right, his shot crashing against the woodwork, an almost trademark shot for the Portuguese winger. David De Gea prevented the tie becoming a one goal lead, pulling off a stunning reaction save from a head corner at close range. The introduction of Paul Scholes steadied things somewhat, slowing play down as the the game approached the last 10 minutes. However, despite this Ajax continued to press for a way to cause an upset, and with 3 minutes to go they made sure fans were in for a nervy ending, as Alderweireld headed in from close range from a free kick, defensive lapses producing closing moments to leave the Old Trafford faithful on edge. There was 2 minutes of added on time to be played, and despite the raucous nature of the travelling fans and the urgency in Ajax’s play, United were able to hold on and see the game out, losing the match itself 1-2 and progressing through to the next round as 3-2 aggregate winners. A tense encounter and with that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Inexperience was costly
The selection of a relatively inexperienced side was always going to be considered a risk for a European game, something which has backfired on more than one occasion already this season. In truth, there is logic to it, providing ample opportunity for SIr Alex Ferguson to blood some of his brightest young stars to build experience and allowing them to develop for such situations in future. The entire defensive line up was made up of youthful players, albeit extremely talented ones. Whilst both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have been superb this season, one cannot help but feel that rather than playing both in the centre, perhaps a more experienced head to take one place would have been of greater benefit, to provide leadership and greater organisation to a back four that probably lacks command currently with regards to De Gea.
2) The midfield was overrun
The use of the recently returned Cleverley and Park Ji-Sung as the midfield partnership was certainly an unconventional one in comparison to recent weeks. With Cleverley perhaps still lacking in match practise and Park not being the most controlling of midfielders it was probably of little to think they may not get a great stranglehold on proceedings in the game. Unfortunately, for much of the game Ajax were able to dominate this area, playing fairly free flowing with plenty of space to push forward and threaten the United goal. Cleverley struggled to make an impact on the game, despite having the odd moment, notably a long range shot to produce a good save, but it was not until Paul Scholes was brought on, with some roles being shifted that United were able to get some sort of grasp on the area. Scholes’ introduction certainly slowed play slightly, able to make proceedings go his own way and although Ajax threatened they were not playing the pace they had done prior to bringing him on.
3) David De Gea to the rescue?
It is perhaps telling of the overall performance of the side that many considered the young Spaniard to be United’s best player on what became a disappointing evening for fans, despite the progress. Not to say that David De Gea’s performance was poor, far from it. In fact one could argue he kept United from a far more anxious end to the game, with the aforementioned reaction save to prevent Ajax making it a one goal game with far more time left on the clock than when they finally did close the gap further. He certainly looked more confident and although was not worked extremely hard overall, he was reliable when called upon making some useful saves to deny the opposition. A solid performance from someone that one hopes is growing into the position as United’s goalkeeper.
4) Da Silva twins – bright and effective
The Da Silva twins certainly made a decent contribution to the game. Rafael in particular was a positive point for an otherwise tepid evening for fans. Involved in many attacks going down the right side, fighting for every ball and generally causing problems for his opposite counterpart throughout the game. He had his moments of rash decisions and general immaturity, notably his blatant dive as he made his way into the box in the first and his challenge that earned him a yellow card. However, in all it was an impressive game for the Brazilian, and we were able to see his brother Fabio get involved with play on the right as well, coming over from the left with relative ease. Despite getting forward, one feels they did not get caught out an awful lot tracking back, making sure they got back in quick time when they ventured forward.
5) Berbatov and Hernandez – good link up
It seems every time that Berbatov is included in the starting line up, some kind of justification or argument against it must be included based on the standard of his performance. In truth, although impressive and effective on the evening, especially in the first half, the chances are a start will evade the Bulgarian come the weekend unless injury issues allow for it. Certainly in the first half both players produced strong link up play, particularly with regards to the goal as Berbatov played in a superb pass for Hernandez who cleverly took a step in and finished strongly. Berbatov was certainly lively, looking to get involved by dropping deeper for much his time on the pitch, displaying good control and looking to get creative as Hernandez burst forward. The two styles appeared to compliment each other nicely but as the game worse on and Ajax began to control the midfield more in the second half, both players found themselves quieter as Berbatov made way for Welbeck on 72 minutes, coming off to a warm reception from the United faithful.