Its a tie for the ages, between two of Europe’s historically biggest clubs, however its not in the competition that these two teams would usually expect to meet each other. Manchester United and Ajax are two teams strongly associated with Champions League football. For so long, United have ruled England, and Ajax, along with PSV, have dominated Holland. However, in 2012 they will meet in a Europa League round of 16 tie. Many including myself, can scarcely believe, even now, that United failed to qualify from what has been branded their easiest group in recent memory. But thats all in the past.
Many have speculated how Sir Alex Ferguson will approach this tie. When United were knocked out of the Champions League, many thought it would be a good opportunity to give the likes of Paul Pogba, Zeki Fryers and then United player, Ravel Morrison, some valuable playing time at a decent level. But then United were drawn to play Ajax who, as already mentioned, are effectively Champions League standard opposition. Sir Alex has recently rubbished suggestions he will field a weakened team in the Europa League in order to keep his key players fit and fresh for the Premier League title race. He also hinted he will use the Ajax tie to give returning first team players such as Nani, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling a chance to regain match fitness after injury lay-offs.
Personally, I think Sir Alex Ferguson will field a strong line up against Ajax. But yet again, any United side is usually a ‘strong’ line up. I think we will see at least three of the above mentioned quartet start if fit, along with the likes of Fabio who, lets not forget, was Sir Alex’s first choice right back for last season’s Champions League final against Barcelona. I expect to see Fabio at left back with perhaps his twin Rafael on the other side of Smalling and Evans. In midfield, I’d expect to see the evergreen Ryan Giggs starting alongside Cleverley with European specialist Ji-Sung Park and one of Nani and Young on the flanks. It will be interesting to see if Fergie will play with one or two up front with the first leg at the Amsterdam ArenA. Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez could be handed chances to impress after seeing little game time recently due to the form of Danny Welbeck. Depending on the tightness of the tie, the likes of Pogba and Fryers could make cameos off the bench in the first leg or be kept for the familiar surrounds of Old Trafford in the second leg. Either way, I think they will definitely see game time during the tie.
Predicting a United starting XI is a hazardous occupation and Sir Alex Ferguson loves to spring a few surprises when the teamsheets are announced. This one could be more difficult than most to predict! Let’s hope for an exciting tie between two great clubs.
By Levi Barrow
Follow me on Twitter @karmalooplevi