After handshakegate it’s a pleasure to return to the normality of football this week and a return to European football, albeit a different calibre of European football.
This Thursday United find themselves in pursuit of the only trophy that eludes their trophy cabinet – the Uefa/Europa Cup. Call it what you will but it isn’t the cup that we were all hoping to be competing for in February 2012. It is, however, a competition that can offer us great reward.
Selection for Europe’s ‘Carling Cup’ is always going to prove difficult for Fergie, especially in these earlier rounds. For, who amongst us can honestly say that they’d be willing to sacrifice injury to some of our best players, lose them in the title race, for a serious tilt at the Europa League? Ferguson, however, has to balance this caution with a realistic gamble. This, admittedly, is a great chance to give many youngsters a run out, but it’s also a competition that Ferguson has said he’s taking seriously. He’s recently commented that, without a game this coming Saturday, he’s going to field his strongest team but don’t be surprised to see a few surprises in the line up.
I think it’s a perfect competition for de Gea to keep up his impressive run of form and I fully expect to see him in goal on Thursday. In defence I would like to see both da Silvas (if fit) play on the flanks. After the emotional rollercoaster that Patrice Evra has recently endured I think its a good idea that he’s been left at home, feet up, watching Channel 5 like the rest of us. In the heart of defence I’d expect to see one of Saturday’s heroes, Jonny Evans, play alongside a returning to full fitness Smalling or Jones.
In midfield it may be the perfect opportunity to see the exciting Paul Pogba given a chance to impress. If he does, I’d fully expect to see Scholes line up alongside him in order to guide him through the game and keep him in check. In reality though I think Ferguson will use this midweek opportunity to bring back Cleverley. To pair Pogba and Cleverley together may prove too much of a gamble but who knows? Ashley Young is owed some game time and Giggs/Nani/Valencia will probably fill the other wide berth. It’s hard to know whether to drop Valencia and rest him or not as it could prove beneficial but a break from the game may disrupt his magnificent form.
Up front will likely see Berbatov partner Hernandez as it gives both players an opportunity to stretch their legs and remind the manager of their attributes. On paper I think this partnership is a match made in footballing heaven but, without game time, this will prove difficult to demonstrate.
For the Dutch side danger man Miralem Sulejmani is the man to watch with ten goals in just 15 games in the Eredivisie he certainly knows where the net is and is given capable assistance from the likes of Christian Eriksen and Theo Janssen. Ajax are historically one of the most famous attacking sides in world football and this current crop of players does the club’s great history justice.
Ajax have won the competition in its previous incarnation as the UEFA Cup, where a certain Edwin Van Der Sar kept the bench warm as the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Frank De Boer, Wim Jonk and Brian Roy beat Torino over two legs back in 1992.
As United venture out onto the old stomping ground of the former Ajax-cannibal I’m sure that handshakes will be the last thing on their minds. This is a chance to play football and take a step towards winning a major(ish) trophy. Let’ hope they express themselves with aplomb and remind the Champions’ League what it’s missing!