Manchester United makes an appearance in Europe’s second tier competition for the first time since losing to Rotor Volograd in September 1995. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has not missed a Champions League campaign since Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel scored in the 2-2 draw with the Russian outfit at Old Trafford. The draw, in the then UEFA Cup, sent United tumbling out at the first round stage on away goals.
Ferguson’s team returns to the now revamped Europa League having suffered a truly dreadful Champions League group campaign. Whether an issue of complacency, injuries or Ferguson’s side simply not being good enough, the Scot’s side is now firmly relegated to Europe, division two following defeat to FC Basel in Switzerland before Christmas.
Yet, Ajax versus United is the glamour tie of the round – one that, on paper at least, should be taking place in the continent’s premier tournament. Adding to the intrigue, the clubs have not met at any competitive level since 1976, although United has played in pre-season tournaments at the Amsterdam ArenA. It is a venue that Wayne Rooney will not recall with any fondness after seeing red on his last visit.
United won that 1976 tie 2-1 on aggregate, with Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy scoring the goals at Old Trafford to take the Reds through. United would lose, heavily, to Juventus in round two.
Meanwhile, the modern United squad travels without long-term injured Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Owen. Anders Lindegaard, whose ankle injury may be worse that originally thought, is also left behind in Manchester, as are Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, who are rested, and Dimitar Berbatov, who has a minor knock.
“Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov are injured,” said Ferguson.
“We rested Patrice Evra. It was an emotional weekend for him so I think this is the right thing to do. It’s a strong squad we’ve got here. Ryan got a knock in the first half against Liverpool on the ankle and Dimitar got an injury in training on Sunday.
“It’s better to leave [Berbatov] behind. It’s not a serious injury – he’d be available if I asked him to play – but I thought it better not to risk it, so I left him behind.”
However, Ferguson has brighter injury news more generally, with Tom Cleverley back in the squad following three months out. The 22-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute against Liverpool in the Premier League last weekend, but could make an appearance for the first time since October in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Ashley Young, Nani, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all back into the squad to face the Dutch giants.
It all makes for a far stronger squad than some feared – or, indeed, hoped for – travelling the short distance to Amsterdam. Indeed, Ezekiel Fryers and Paul Pogba are the only regular reserve team players in Ferguson’s squad, with United not facing a Premier League fixture at the weekend. Whether Ferguson deploys more reserves in a week’s time, with Norwich City to follow less than three days later, is an open question.
“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” claimed Ferguson on Monday.
“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.
“Winning any European trophy is significant. Irrespective of those who have won the three trophies before it is important for us, with our own history, to win tournaments all the time. We threw it away in our home game against Basel and were unlucky against Benfica. That caught us short and we suffered for it.
“Now players are coming back I am sure we can combine the Premier League and Europa League so I would certainly try to play my strongest team in each round now.”
Ferguson may bring Young and Nani back for the game, although the 70-year-old is unlikely to make wholesale changes in the away leg from the side that beat Liverpool on Saturday. Mexican striker Javier Hernández could start after spending much of the campaign injured or sat on the bench. Danny Welbeck’s form, in addition to head and angle problems have made for a difficult second campaign at Old Trafford.
Yet, Hernández’ unselfish commitment to the cause ensures that the 23-year-old remains in Ferguson’s thoughts for the Premier and Europa League campaigns despite Welbeck’s rise. Although Rooney is likely to start in Amsterdam, Hernández and Welbeck could be paired together for the return leg next Thursday.
“Both teams have come out of the Champions League and they both have a great history,” said Hernández.
“We have won a lot of European Cups between us, so it will be a very interesting game. We need to get used to the fact we are not in the Champions League this season. And the history of Manchester United is such that it doesn’t matter which competition you are in, we want to win it, no matter who else is in it, or whether it is an important trophy for other teams.”
“It [the Mexican's second season] has been a little bit frustrating because I have been injured a lot. But there are some things you can’t do anything about. I am happy and I am still enjoying it. It is a privilege to play for Manchester United, whether things are going good or bad, I want to keep that attitude.”
“Danny Welbeck is a brilliant player. He is only young but he went to Sunderland and did great things there. Then he came back here and has been unbelievable. That doesn’t upset me, competition is normal at a club like this. You need to be at your best to help the team. That is the most important thing.”
Meanwhile, Ajax is a club and squad in crisis. On the pitch the team, under Frank de Boer’s management, continues to struggle in the Eredivisie, currently lying sixth and out of contention for a Champions League place next season. In the boardroom more than 18 months of wrangling between Johan Cruyff and the club’s council has concluded, temporarily one suspects, with Louis van Gaal being removed as CEO. The argument surrounds Cruyff’s call to employ former club legends such as Wim Jonk to revitalise Ajax’ one-famed youth academy.
Ajax, based on the youthful ‘total football’ approach, has won all three of Europe’s club trophies – it is a feat that United cannot match, with the Reds never having emerged victorious in the current tournament. However, the hosts do not boast an enviable record against English opponents in recent yeras. The Amsterdam-based club has not won in seven matches against English opposition, with a record now reading three draws, four defeats since victory against Nottingham Forest in the 1980/81 European Cup semi-final.
Despite the malaise in Amsterdam, the current Ajax generation does offer some talent, with all eyes on Danish teenager Christian Eriksen, along with sought-after defender Jan Vertonghen, and forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson.
“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” said Ferguson on Monday.
“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”
United scouts have watched 19-year-old Eriksen this season, but whether the club is interested, let alone can afford, to make a summer bid is as yet untested. After all, while Ferguson believes United is “not far away” from Barcelona’s standard on the pitch, Spanish clubs’ finances are an altogether different sport. United slipped further behind the Spanish giants in Deloitte’s, albeit flawed, ‘money league’ this year. The reduced income on offer in the Europa League will not help close that gap.
Ajax versus Manchester United, Europa League, Amsterdam ArenA, Thursday 16 February 2012, 6pm.
Ajax (3-4-3): Vermeer; Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Koppers; Anita, Enoh, De Jong, Eriksen; Sulejmani, Bulykin, Özbiliz. Subs from: Aissati, Lodeiro, Blind, Cillessen, Ebicilio, Lukoki, Van Rhijn, Denswil Veltman, Klaassen, Ligeon.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Fabio; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Jones, Fryers, Nani, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Welbeck.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
Assistant referees: Andrea Stefani, Gianluca Cariolato
Additional assistants: Christian Brighi, Gabriele Gava
Fourth official: Andrea Gervasoni