Manchester United ventures into new territory this week in a competition that nobody at the club, from owners, to fans via the manager, actually wants to take part in. But the Reds will break new ground nonetheless in the Europa League, featuring in the tournament for the first time since its revamp. Adding to the intrigue this week, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will play Dutch giants Ajax for the first time, in a competitive fixture, during Ferguson’s reign when the sides meet at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday.
A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the group stages. Despite the rebranding, the Europa League has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.
Twice UEFA has reorganised the competition in the past decade, eliminating the Cup Winners’ Cup and two-legged final, and then adding extra rounds and a group stage. The Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. To win the tournament, United will play nine fixtures, while Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches.
While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to parachute clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.
Should United win, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest, the club will earn less than half a similar run in the Champions League would bring. It goes without saying that television, and its accompanying money, requires the most attractive games and biggest stars.
Meanwhile, fans’ excitement broadly matches those of the broadcasters; it’s a fact recognised by United, with the club reducing members’ ticket prices and eliminating the much-despised automatic cup ticket scheme for the competition. Those travelling to Amsterdam this week do so with the city’s many other forms of entertainment in mind, in addition to the football on offer. Those stuck at home on Thursday will enjoy Channel 5’s coverage, with kick off at 6pm.
Unusual teams and times are an unfortunate reflection of the European company United now keeps.
And then there is the question of whether Ferguson will take the competition seriously. After all, while the manager has already stated his intention to win the tournament, the Scot will certainly not pursue that goal at the expense of Premier League glory.
“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” said Sir Alex said 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.
“I think it’s amazing that, in the 55 years we’ve been involved in Europe, we’ve never played Ajax. When you think of all the draws that have been made, the quarter-finals and the groups, we’ve never drawn them. 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.”
The United coach may change his story when Ajax arrive in Manchester in 10 days time, just 60 hours before the Reds play Norwich City in the Premier League. Indeed, those close to Ferguson’s coaching team readily admit that United will ‘experiment’ in the tournament. The Reds’ 38 man squad includes a large number of youngsters and fringe players, many of which may see action if United progress.
Moreover, in Ajax United is facing a European giant now stripped of its potency. While the Dutch club has never possessed the financial clout to compete with the continent’s best, the famed youth academy once produced a string of talent. This is no longer the case, with Ajax’ finest plundered at an ever more youthful age.
Then there is the boardroom strife that has seen two former greats at loggerheads over the club’s administration. Johan Cruyff was successful last week in having Louis van Gaal removed as Ajax’ ceo, after claiming in court that the former Bayern Munich coach was appointed without his consent. Cruyff and van Gaal have clashed, among other issues, over Ajax’ youth academy, with the former seeking to appoint a clique of retired club greats such as Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk.
On the pitch Ajax, under Frank De Boer’s management, has slipped to sixth in the Eredivisie in what is fast becoming a disastrous campaign. Mind you, the Dutch club was hugely unfortunate to lose out on qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League following Olympique Lyonnais’ 7-1 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the final group match.
Yet, the side still contains some talent, including the sought after defender Jan Vertonghen, forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Danish teenager Christian Eriksen. Indeed, the latter is a player watched by United’s scouts, along with those from many major European clubs. The bidding in the summer is likely to rise far beyond a fee that United is prepared to pay – at least before the Glazer family’s long-mooted IPO is launched.
“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” Ferguson added.
“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.”
Ajax has nobody of Cruyff or even Krol’s talent today. But then again neither, arguably, does United. Welcome to Europe, division two.
United Europa League Squad
Ferguson’s squad includes 13 names on ‘Player list B’, which is those players under 21 and having trained with the team for at least three years.
Goalkeepers: David De Gea, Tomasz Kuszczak, Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos*, Sam Johnstone*.
Defenders: Patrice Evra, Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić, Fábio da Silva*, Rafael da Silva*, Ritchie De Laet, Marnick Vermijl, Michael Keane*, Sean McGinty*, Ezekiel Fryers*.
Midfielders: Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Ji-sung Park, Michael Carrick, Nani, Ashley Young, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba*, Mathew James*, Davide Petrucci*, Larnell Cole*.
Forwards: Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck*, Will Keane*.
* Player is on list B.
Draw – Round of 32
Porto v Manchester City
Ajax v UNITED
Lokomotiv Moscow v Athletic Bilbao
Salzburg v Metalist Kharkiv
Stoke City v Valencia
Rubin Kazan v Olympiakos
AZ Alkmaar v Anderlecht
Lazio v Atlético de Madrid
Steaua Bucharest s Twente Enschede
Wisla Krakow v Standard de Liege
Viktoria Plzen v Schalke
Braga v Beşiktaş
Udinese v PAOK
Trabzonspor v PSV
Hannover 96 v Club Brugge
Legia Warsaw v Sporting CP
Draw – Round of 16
Salzburg/Metalist Kharkiv vs Rubin/Olympiakos
Legia Warsaw/Sporting vs Porto/Man City
Steaua/Twente vs Plzen/Schalke
Wisla/Standard de Liege vs Hannover/Club Brugge
Stoke/Valencia vs Trabzonspor/PSV
AZ Alkmaar/ Anderlecht vs Udinese/PAOK
Lazio/Atletico vs Braga/Beşiktaş
Ajax/UNITED vs Lokomotiv/Athletic Bilbao