Injury crisis ends as Reds warm to Europa League

February 19, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Manchester United’s victory over Ajax in Amsterdam on Thursday came almost 27 years after the club’s last win in the competition. Defeats to Russian outfits Rotor Volgograd and Torpedo Moscow in the intervening years came as the club increasingly focused on European glory in the continent’s premier competition. Indeed, while the positive messages are to be heard loud and clear from United’s hierarchy about the Europa League this week, there is little escaping the club’s isolation. Kick off at 6pm on a Thursday, in a competition that nobody at Old Trafford really wanted to be involved in, is proof enough of that seclusion, if any is needed.

Perhaps this showed in United’s first half performance at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday; one of such sluggish impotence that Ferguson was moved to angry post match criticism of his side, despite the Reds’ 2-0 win. The Scot’s outfit may well warm to the Europa task as the competition nears its dénouement, with aggregate victory over Ajax now surely assured, but mentally perhaps, this was no easy opening.

“I think the result was better than the performance,” Ferguson admitted, after United scored twice in the second half to put away the crisis stricken Dutch.

“The first half was disappointing. It was difficult to get the rhythm and speed to the game. Ajax made it very difficult for us with their system. They pressed the ball very well. In the second half we had to wake up. We made it difficult for ourselves.

“I just think we didn’t speed up our game enough. I know they pressed the ball very well and left their centre-backs to make most of the progress with the ball, but we needed to play quicker. The second half we improved, made some good opportunities and deserved to win. It’s a good result. You can’t complain too much when you win 2-0 away from home.”

Lack of a trailblazing performance notwithstanding, there were positives for Ferguson’s side, with the manager now able to stretch his European squad at Old Trafford next Thursday night. The Scot will surely call in his squad’s fringe, those players needing minutes and, perhaps, those of a younger persuasion. In a competition that frequently squeezes preparation time for the following weekend’s Premier League fixture, Ferguson will be grateful for an easier ride in the coming week.

Higher on the United manager’s agenda though will be an apparent easing of the Reds’ injury crisis, which at times has seen 11 senior players on the treatment table. Captain Nemanja Vidić and midfielder Darren Fletcher are unlikely to play again this season, despite positive early prognosis for the former. Meanwhile, there is no return in sight for errant Brazilian Anderson, nor Michael Owen.

But the Scot will be delighted to include Ashley Young, Nani, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in his matchday squad on Thursday. Each has played a key role at times this season, but suffered from injury or loss of form in recent months. Young’s goal in an otherwise insipid performance was a bonus. The former Aston Villa man will certainly need to improve on his sharp decline in form before injury struck two months ago. Meanwhile, Nani shanked his first corner behind for a goal kick. It rarely got better from there – far from the Portuguese’s best performance in a Red shirt.

Then there was Jones, who put in another bombastic performance at right-back, adding to Ferguson’s options and – if no further clarity on the subject – to the debate over which of the Scot’s men should be deployed at right-back.

None of this was Thursday’s highlight, although genuinely positive. Indeed, result, returnees and even a Red invasion of Amsterdam’s less than salubrious establishments pale into comparison to Tom Cleverley’s hour in a United shirt. The 22-year-old midfielder has played just 58 minutes since 10 September, but returns as the clichéd ‘new signing’ Ferguson was denied by the Glazer family’s parsimony in the winter transfer window. For this alone, Ferguson could embrace the Europa League in the past week.

Cleverley was safe in his passing, but struggled to impose his game on Ajax’ youthful team. That will come with time, fitness and confidence – and nobody in United’s squad can match the youngster’s pass-and-move midfield style.

“I’m delighted for Tom Cleverley,” said 19-year-old Jones, who completed the full 90 minutes in Amsterdam.

“He’s a terrific talent. We missed him on the pitch while he was out. But I saw him every day in the gym so I know his attitude’s fantastic. He deserved to be out there tonight. Ashley’s also terrific. He’s come back from injury and done really well and I was pleased for him to get our first goal tonight.”

In a season when injuries have seemingly not rained, but poured, bright news would never come without a downside; every silver cloud has a touch of darker lining. Indeed, injury to Antonio Valencia, United’s most dangerous player since the New Year turned, comes as a significant blow to the Reds’ hopes. Injury is likely to keep the Ecuadorian on the sidelines for a month in which United faces not only Ajax, but Tottenham Hotspur and two further European matches.

“He has a hamstring injury unfortunately. It will be four weeks,” Sir Alex confirmed on Thursday.

“It’s a blow to lose Valencia tonight, but bit by bit, we are getting stronger with Nani and Ashley Young coming back. Tom Cleverley has played a bit of football tonight and Phil Jones has played a full game which is good for us. Chris Smalling was on the bench but will play in the return match at Old Trafford next Thursday.”

Those returning players will now face two games against Lokomotiv Moscow or Athletic Bilbao next month, unless Ajax pulls off an unlikely three goal victory at Old Trafford. The Russians’ 2-1 victory in Moscow sets up a tense return in Basque country next week, with Ferguson, his players and United’s supporters likely to place faith in the Spaniards’ ability to turn the tie around.

Assuming United make it through it will be the first time since the Reds beat Dundee United by the odd goal in nine that United has progressed in the Europa League or its predecessor. That result came in December 1984, two years before Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford began. And while the feeling of goodwill about the current incarnation of the tournament currently resides with an opponent’s location, and a lessening injury crisis, more victories such as that last Thursday may turn the remaining doubters around.


Liam - February 19, 2012 Reply

27 years? It was 17 years ago.

Ed - February 20, 2012 Reply

Liam – Really? You sure about that? Because I’m pretty sure that United’s last victory was a 1-0 win over Videoton at Old Trafford, 6 March 1985.

dozer - February 20, 2012 Reply

Isn’t it less of an injury crisis now that we have Cleverley, Nani and Jones back? Rafael’s been getting game time too.
And Anderson is still out thank God.
Valencia’s injury alone is a crisis more or less, he’s been our most dangerous player in the last few months, almost like us being a one man team. But Rooney and Carrick are playing well.
Btw when did Jonny Evans turn into Baresi? It’s scary how well he’s defending at the moment, although his ball playing skills leave a lot to be desired, that’s the last expectation I have of a defender as long as he can defend.
Edit: Sorry Ed, I misread the title.

Sir Ryan Giggs? No no no. Sir Paul Scholes say.

dane powell - February 20, 2012 Reply

never miss a episode from all the way in Jamaica, love the rant to death )

kramer - February 20, 2012 Reply

dozer said:
Btw when did Jonny Evans turn into Baresi? It’s scary how well he’s defending at the moment, although his ball playing skills leave a lot to be desired, that’s the last expectation I have of a defender as long as he can defend.

Dunno, he’s still making a couple of mistakes a game, although they’re becoming less dangerous.
He’s definitely improved immensely in the past couple of months and i’m very glad to see it, but I think he’s still got some way to go.
I think his biggest problem is the physical aspects of the game – he’s not got a great leap, nor is he particularly quick. Still, he’s definitely got a long term future at united if he keeps going like this.

sidney - February 20, 2012 Reply

Another “2 weeks” for Ando

Fingers crossed he’s gone

Ed - February 20, 2012 Reply

sidney –

Ferguson “I’ve got some great young players like Anderson, who are the future of my club. The boy, Anderson, he’s got fantastic ability. There’s no question about that. He’s been tremendous, the boy. Why would I want to spend £40m, £50m bringing someone in when I have a player like Anderson.” *


* ok, he didn’t say this, but he will when the burger eating Brazilian returns

Anon Payn - February 20, 2012 Reply

Idk what it is about Cleverley, but I think he is the best thing to happen to this club in a long, long time. We’ve had false dawns before (eg., O’Shea) but Cleverley looks like the best player we have produced since Scholes. He only needs to add goals to his repertoire. And the ability to stay fit!
I saw some Ando criticism again earlier in the comments section. Sigh, memory is entirely fleeting in some sections of Old Trafford.

sidney - February 21, 2012 Reply

Ed said:
sidney –
Ferguson “I’ve got some great young players like Anderson, who are the future of my club. The boy, Anderson, he’s got fantastic ability. There’s no question about that. He’s been tremendous, the boy. Why would I want to spend £40m, £50m bringing someone in when I have a player like Anderson.” *
* ok, he didn’t say this, but he will when the burger eating Brazilian returns

But he often says shite like that to throw people off the scent.
Fergie is prepared to get rid of him IMO. When Ando had a strop and pissed off to Brazil, Fergie took a ‘fair enough’ approach, and said he ‘let him get on with it’.
He wouldn’t take that approach if it was an important player. He would negotiate, like he did with Rooney.
Pogba can take his place.

Alfonso Bedoya - February 21, 2012 Reply

sidney said:
Pogba can take his place.

He should have been brought in the second Cleverly broke down… instead… we brought Scholes back.
Scholes has done well… as you would expect from a player with such pure quality… but Pogba should have been given the chance first… then if he struggled, play Scholes…
I’m still not sure about Pogba, cause I haven’t seen much of him…. but he’s so well rated by others, and it seems that he has a number of big name clubs waiting to snap him up if he quits United… so he MUST be quality… so play him for fuck sake… before he does a Pique.

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and ching’ tu madre! Come out from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.”

sidney - February 21, 2012 Reply

Next season. Pogba can play Ando’s games.
There was an opportunity for him to replace Clev, aye, but he didn’t, so he can’t be ready. I trust the club on this; on bringing through young players. The last thing United want to do is put him in the mix every week and have him fuck up or ‘not do enough’.
Everything he does has to be positive. Cameos are alright for now. Next season, increase his responsibility.

DeadRevel - February 22, 2012 Reply

From the articles on the manutd.com site, it seems it is quite likely Pogba will be off. Fucking disgrace really… Morrison and Pogba both gone, for tiny fees. United’s promised midfield revolution is fucked once again.

19 and Counting - February 22, 2012 Reply

Seems he will start the Ajax game and Rio is trying to talk to him, but it may be too little too late.

Alfonso Bedoya - February 22, 2012 Reply

Fuck Pogba… Scholes is the future…

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