In a season of frustrating mediocrity Louis van Gaal has few chances left to achieve redemption. Despite the Dutchman’s, frankly, ludicrous assertion that his “philosophy” is working, Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford has been little short of a catastrophe. With the club some 13 points shy of the Premier League summit, facing a tough FA Cup replay at West Ham United, and starting Thursday night’s Europa League game two goals down to Liverpool, it is likely Van Gaal will leave Old Trafford having presided over two barren years.
Much has been made over the possible “Liverpoolisation” of Manchester United. United is mounting a desperate challenge to qualify for the Champions League, but with some irony faces elimination from the seemingly winnable Europa League at the hands of the old enemy, Liverpool.
“We are in a lot of competitions, just six points behind Manchester City, we have a lot of chances, a lot of titles to fight for. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.” Fighting talk or another delusional claim by Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal? Perhaps both, yet with a place in the FA Cup quarter-final now secure, Van Gaal looks forward to a tricky week with more confidence than before. Read More
As one door closes, another opens. Manchester United’s top four ambitions were dealt a significant blow last weekend as the Reds lost 2-1 to a relegation-threatened Sunderland side. It all but ended United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next season. In a week, and indeed a season, where mediocrity has followed United round like a bad smell, few should be surprised that Louis van Gaal’s side finds itself travelling to Denmark on a Thursday night to try and salvage another season. Read More
Nearly a year on from Manchester United’s humiliation at Barcelona’s hands in the Champions League final and it is now clear that the Reds have not closed the gap on the Catalan side – a statement of the obvious. Yet, ‘closing the gap’ was a familiar refrain in the weeks after the 3-1 Wembley defeat, with the debate among fans and manager centring on how United could recover ground the lost to Pep Guardiola’s outstanding side. But in the 293 days since United capitulated to Barça in such dispiriting fashion the Reds not only failed to catch the four times European Champions, but have gone significantly backwards.
In total United lost four times in European competition this season; knocked out of two separate tournaments on route. But that tells only part of the story in a campaign that saw United perform middling at best on 10 occasions in succession. Indeed, even rare wins in Europe over the past seven months have come with caveats; neither of United’s victories over Romanian debutants Oţelul Galaţi came with any great flair, while the defeat of Ajax in Amsterdam was earned on barely 30 minutes of quality football.
More common, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has plumbed depths of performance in Europe that, thankfully, have not been matched in more than five years. While Old Trafford draws with Benfica and FC Basel were infirm, worse was to come away in Switzerland. Yet, none of those results was a patch on the humiliating thumping handed down by Athletic Bilbao in the past week – a side, albeit talented, that currently lies seventh in La Liga.
It was not, of course, the loss to Bilbao that hurt most this season. Many United fans, mindful of the Premier League challenge from Manchester City ahead, felt a sense of relief that the Reds must no longer go through the Thursday-Sunday Europa routine. It comes to something when United has sunk to that depth – 125 years of proud history discarded in thumping defeat to one of Europe’s second ranked clubs.
More important though, the manner of defeat to the Basques was not only comprehensive, but wilfully lax on United’s part. Both at Old Trafford and Thursday night, in the atmospheric San Mames, there were times when United’s players simply did not care enough. Patrice Evra jogged through the match; Rooney put in the effort only when it suited him; Tom Cleverley strolled around as if taking part in an informal beach knockabout on holiday. The threesome was absolutely not alone in this sin.
In this observation there is no clichéd call for passion. It is a recognition that, at United, there is more than a century of institutional memory. It is more valuable than Thursday’s performance deserved.
“It’s been a disaster in the Champions League and in the Europa League now I think we have to tell the truth – we deserved to go out because we never played with the same desire as when we play in the league,” admitted Evra on Friday, one of the few in the United camp to recognise the catastrophe at hand.
“We can see the difference in the league. We are top of the league and we are more focused, I don’t know why. If we want to save the season we have to win the league. If we don’t win the league, it will be a really bad season.”
There are excuses for failure, of course. Injuries have played a part, but only a part, in United’s capitulation this season. During the Champions League group stages Ferguson’s side suffered for repeated and frequent absences as a full-blown injury crisis kicked in during the late autumn.
Yet, injuries were not the reason that United failed to make it out of the Champions League for the first time since 2005. Complacency from both players and manager on a truly massive scale was the true cause, and both were shameful; it is simply not the United way.
No wonder, then, that Ferguson spent most of Friday praising United’s spirit in the Premier League, drawing focus away from the matter at hand to a title run-in with rivals Manchester City that will consume supporters attention in the coming weeks.
The question now is whether United will learn lessons from a disastrous campaign. Just as Ferguson promised an answer to Barcelona’s superiority last May – and failed – so the club must now learn how to come back from a bottom-feeding campaign; to again compete at the very highest level. After all, the regression has put the lie to Ferguson’s recent claim that United is “not that far away” from Barcelona or Real Madrid’s level.
“There are always lessons to learn from every football match, whether you win or lose,” Sir Alex told Channel 5 immediately after defeat in Spain.
“It’s disappointing more than anything. We haven’t progressed in the Champions League and now we’re out of the Europa League. I think the best team went through. I don’t think we can complain about the result. I think that in the second half in particular Bilbao were the better team.
“What we have seen tonight and last Thursday is a team whose work rate is higher than anyone I have seen in Europe, and that takes you a long way. Apart from the fantastic work rate, they have some good qualities also. It’s not just their work rate getting them where they are at the moment – they’re showing some very good combination football and I think they can go the whole way.”
Indeed, Athletic’s was a brand of attacking, vibrant, and above all, committed football that United supporters can only dream of. In praise of Bilbao Ferguson was generous, but well he might be for it is certainly easier to praise an Athletic side that was better over the tie than any side United has faced, Barcelona aside, in the past two seasons, than address United’s long-running and obvious deficiencies.
One wonders whether spring 2013 will bring a similar debate – will Ferguson and his paymasters recognise decline before it sets in permanently, or offer another river of broken promises.
Sir Alex Ferguson certainly talks a good game, praising his side’s durability ahead of Manchester United’s crucial Europa League second leg clash with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night. United will need resilience and more, with Ferguson’s side, 3-2 down from the first leg at Old Trafford, needing to win by two clear goals – or score four – at San Mames. Given the vibrancy with Athletic attacked last week, United will need to pull off one of the side’s finest European away performances of recent years to progress.
The Reds’ home defeat to the Basque outfit was the second successive turnover at Old Trafford in the competition, and comes after a European season in which the Reds have conspicuously failed, after reaching three Champions League finals in the past four years.
Despite the campaign’s comparative failures, and the size of the task ahead, Ferguson believes United’s durability will take the club through to a quarter-final spot. However, the Scot’s side will have to do so without several players, including Anderson, Phil Jones and Nani, who were left in Manchester. Chris Smalling is unlikely to be risked from the start after a head wound opened up in spectacular style in last week’s encounter.
Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia and French teenager Paul Pogba travelled with the squad Spain and could play some part. Tom Cleverley is again likely to be left on the bench, as was the 22-year-old midfielder for United’s weekend victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.
“We keep carrying on and it points to a resilience in the team that is really admirable,” Ferguson said on Wednesday.
“They have done exceptionally well. It is an achievement in the sense of they’re still hanging in there. We still can win this game tomorrow and I think the players believe that. It’s a difficult tie for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage now, so it’s a challenge – but not one that is beyond us. Our record away from home in Europe helps us. We have done really well the last few years away from home but it’s going to need a good performance.”
Indeed, United hasn’t turned around a first leg defeat in European competition since 2007, beating Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the Champions League. But the Reds may have to change a defensive-minded philosophy away from Old Trafford that has brought success, but may simply invite Athletic to reprise the exciting possession-based attacking game of last week’s encounter.
Ferguson may gamble on his senior pros at San Mames, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all likely to start at San Mames. United faces Wolverhampton Wanderers away at Molineux on Sunday, and Ferguson has a fine line to trend between progressing in the Europa League and gambling the Reds’ domestic ambitions. He has consistently rotated his resources in European competition this season.
Despite defeat to Bilbao, confidence is high in the camp after United reached the Premier League summit at the weekend. With City losing, United now controls the title race for the first time since the autumn.
And winger Ashley Young, who has recently returned to something approaching his late summer form, says that United’s team spirit could be the foundation for an unlikely result in Spain. Young scored twice in United’s recent victory over Tottenham Hotspur and again impressed in the weekend win against West Brom.
“It is unusual that we find ourselves in this position but there is a great team spirit here and everyone is full of confidence,” said the 26-year-old former Aston Villa star.
“Our form in general makes us believe we can score wherever we play. Our attacking play has been fantastic of late and we believe we can score the two goals we need. Our focus has not changed from the start of the season. We want to win every competition we enter and the Europa League is no different.
“Bilbao were an impressive team last week. They were a very attacking team, had a good team shape and at times we found them hard to break down. But I am sure if we are on our game 100% we can go there and get the win we need.”
Meanwhile, Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa is again likely use the outstanding midfielder Javi Martínez in defence, albeit in a role that offers extensive license to roam. Martínez exemplified the committed attacking approach Bilbao offered at Old Trafford, frequently pushing into midfield as the visitors dominated possession and territory.
Attackers Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and Fernando Llorente will again look to trouble a United back-four that looked anything but assured at Old Trafford. Indeed, Ferguson’s side will need to adopt a new approach to countering Bilbao more successfully than last week.
Despite the outstanding performance at Old Trafford, Bilbao was beaten 2-1 by Ossasuna at the weekend; it is consistency that coach Bielsa says is most difficult for those clubs outside Spain’s duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Bielsa has led Bilbao to fifth in La Liga, despite a policy of recruiting only local players – or those players with a local connection – and a tiny budget by United’s standards. Modest to the last, the former Chile and Argentina coach refuses to take any personal credit for the club’s recent progress.
“The difference in points and finance is there for everyone to see,” said the Argentine.
“But I also believe that on one night or in one match a team like Athletic can get very close to the level of opponents such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. However, to maintain that throughout an entire league season is extremely difficult.
“There is no prestige to coaching a national side or beating Manchester United. Personal things like that do not concern me. They do not last very long. The evaluation of anything has to be done over the long-term, not the short. And we still have another very important 90 minutes ahead of us.”
Could there be an omen in history for United, even if the odds appear stacked against progression? The clubs’ only previous meetings came over 50 years ago in the quarter-finals of the European Cup – Bilbao beat Sir Matt Busby’s United 5-3 in Spain, only to lose the return fixture 3-0 at Maine Road.
To repeat that feat United will have to build on a poor record in Spain, with the Reds having won only twice in the club’s history against Spanish opposition, on Spanish soil. There’s no time like the present to buck that trend, although in one of the most atmospheric Spanish stadiums, nicknamed The Cathedral by locals, it may take a minor miracle from Ferguson’s men.
Athletic Club Bilbao versus Manchester United, Europa League, San Mames, 15 March 2012, 6pm
Bilbao: (4-1-4-1): Iraizoz; Iraola, Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe, de Marcos, Herrera; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain. Subs from: San Jose, Oscar; López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Pogba, Cleverley, Young, Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referees: Tarik Ongun, Mustafa Eyisoy
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Bülent Yıldırım
Manchester United sits firmly adrift of its own European contest this season, and while the lady is yet to sing, she’s certainly warming up her vocal chords after yet another disastrous home performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men on Thursday night. Beaten 3-2 by Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford – it should have been a lot more than that – and probably out of the Europa League, Ferguson is left to reflect on a European campaign that has been complacent, slapdash and simply not good enough this season.
So poor has United been that the campaign has become an embarrassment to a team Ferguson claims is “not that far away” from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Fans, given the evidence presented so far this season, beg to differ.
In truth Bilbao was more than good value for the win, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side dominating possession and territory, and in taking 36 shots at goal, far more attacking than the home side. If ever there was a case study in the brand of vibrant, creative, and passionate attacking play United has been so famed for, here it was.
Bilbao’s ability to pass through and around United’s slapdash back four was consummate. But this is a side lying fifth in La Liga and widely considered the most ‘direct’ of all Spanish outfits. Fine though Bielsa’s side is, this is no mini-Barcelona, with Catalan-esque ability to retain the ball for long periods. Yet, the Argentinian’s side easily out-passed United at Old Trafford; winning possession with high tempo pressing, and distributing from back to front dynamically. Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in central midfield simply couldn’t live with it.
Once again there were excuses from Ferguson, although the Scot did have the good grace not to insult United fans by dwelling on Athletic’s two second-half goals that – technically – should have been ruled out. The Basque side’s single goal winning margin was not reflective of a tie the visitors dominated; a United victory would have been deeply unjust.
Yet, as in poor results against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax this season, Ferguson failed to hit the true nail anywhere near the head. This United side is simply not good enough in European terms. In total Ferguson has blamed lack of concentration, inexperience and bad luck for poor results this season. Lack of quality is a more realistic charge to make.
“Our defending really wasn’t very good at all, and that kept us on the back foot,” admitted the 70-year-old United manager.
“I am going to have to look at ways of possibly bringing Rio Ferdinand back in. He is so important to us, in terms of experience at the back, so I will have to see if that can be done, without disrupting things in the Premier League.
“We have had a bad year in Europe. We conceded three against Basel, two against Benfica, another three against Bilbao and two to Ajax. That tells its own story. Maybe it is just one of those years where we are having to restock and assess how we should approach games at home. There has been that slackness all season.”
But many supporters have argued that the “slackness” identified by Ferguson is driven by the manager himself, whose own complacent approach began with the Reds’ opening Champions League game away at Benfica, where the Scot made significant changes to his side, and has continued through nine European fixtures to date.
This has proven a disastrous strategy; results have demonstrated that United is simply not good enough to be complacent, nor for Ferguson to rotate heavily.
Admirably though that quartet has performed at Old Trafford this season, none is in the top-tier of European heavyweights. Not even close. Indeed, if Ferguson is not simply pulling the wool over supporters’ eyes in claiming United is close to Barcelona or even Madrid’s quality, then United has suffered the longest run of unfortunate defeats in history.
Few fans will buy into that theory.
It represents a huge let down from the summer’s optimism, where many fans bought into the promise of a youthful revolution at Old Trafford. If Barcelona was the model of youth development to sustainable success then there was every reason to believe that Ferguson was the best man to follow through on that promise.
In truth United has progressed not one iota from humiliating defeat at Wembley. Worse, it appears a very long road from where United now is, to the level required to win a third European Cup. The fear is that the owners simply do not care whether United matches Spain’s finest.
There are still voices of optimism. Former Red Gary Neville says that United’s younger players could learn from a difficult European campaign – a lesson that the defender and his colleagues in the ‘class of 1992’ were taught the very hard way.
“The only way you learn European football is by playing and getting to the point where you start to absorb lessons,” said Neville in United Review, ahead of Thursday’s defeat.
“The manager knows he’s got talented young players who are going to be at United for a number of years, and I think this year has almost been a step back to go forwards in Europe. The younger players in our squad will take a lot out of this season.
“There is a subtlety and attention to detail you need in Europe. Inches matter and whereas the Premier League can be a little more forgiving, in Europe opponents are more ruthless and more clinical in front of goal. I remember it when we were young lads too. It’s just something you have to go through.
“It’s an underachievement when you get to three finals in four years, then don’t get past the group stage, but these are great experiences for the young lads. You get the fruits of your labour over time and these lads have huge talent.”
It’s a positive outlook based in a belief that Ferguson will be given the time and budget to build a third European-class side. That, of course, may not be founded in fact, with the holes in Ferguson’s squad seemingly requiring not solely time for personnel development, but also financial investment that is not going to come under the Glazer family’s ownership.
It is likely that the United manager will have no more than £30 million to spend in the market prior to the Singapore IPO, which is currently on permanent hiatus.
Time is also a factor. Younger players such as Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, the da Silva brothers, and David de Gea may be years from their peak. Ferguson is not, with the manager expected to step down by 2014 at the very latest. It may well be that the 2008 side was Ferguson’s last peak, with the team degrading each season hence. The Scot’s eventual replacement will reap any benefit from the growing maturity of younger players within the United squad.
In the meantime United fans can reflect on the most disappointing European campaign for seven years, and a future that looks far less rosy than the bubble that fans enjoyed in August. On reflection United’s early season performances have been replicated at no point past mid-September, even if the side is still within two points of the Premier League leaders.
Yet, Athletic reminded home supporters what has been missing for much of the season. This was a performance of creative, attacking vibrancy and real passion. How Old Trafford regulars would love to see that more often from United. Or at all in Europe. This should be a wake up call. Then again, so should matches against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax.
Fans will hope that Ferguson and his kids learn quickly enough to take the big European prize in the near-term. For now, the jury is firmly out on that question.
Sir Alex Ferguson has called on his troops to “waken up” if Manchester United is to progress to the Europa League quarter-final. Beaten at home by Ajax in the previous round, Untied has now clocked up eight sub-par performances in succession in European competition this season – a trend varyingly blamed on poor form, injury, complacency and the manager’s propensity to tinker.
No more, says the United manager, with the Scot promising to field a full strength side against Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford on Thursday night. The United manager may need to, with the Basque side lying fifth in La Liga and deploying a committed attacking style. Led by in-demand 13-goal leading scorer Ferdnando Llorente, Bilbao is just a single point off Champions League qualification.
It is no mean feat for a supporter-owned club that still largely employs the candera system of recruiting only players of Basque origin. One of Spain’s oldest club’s Athletic – note the English demarcation, initiated by the club’s Southampton-based founders – operates on a fraction of United’s budget, from its atmospheric San Mamés base.
But the self-imposed restrictions are unlikely to fool Ferguson, even if complacency in European competition has been a genuine problem for United’s players this season. The Basque side is likely to offer every bit as stiff a test as FC Basel, Benfica and Ajax have in the campaign.
With United facing successive home ties against Ahtletic and then West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Sunday, Ferguson is set to select a strong side against the Basque visitors.
“It’s a very difficult tie,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.
“From what we’ve seen, Bilbao are a very progressive team in Spain at the moment and it’s going to be a difficult game for us. It’s a game in which we need to waken up, there’s no question about that. Some of our European form this season has been disappointing but it’s an opportunity to progress and we have to take that opportunity. But it will need a very good performance.
“I don’t know if we’re making too many changes in these games. Certainly in the second leg against Ajax we did that, and in the Champions League group stage we made some changes. But we made mistakes in the group stage too, so it’s our own fault. But we’ll play a strong side against Bilbao and hopefully that makes a difference.”
It is just United’s second fixture with the Basque side, after Sir Matt Busby’s ‘Babes’ played, and beat, Bilbao in the European Cup quarter-final in early 1957. Losing the away fixture 5-3, Busby’s young side turned the tie around with a 3-0 at Maine Road to qualify for the semi-final. It provides an excersice in nostalgia, with United’s 11 a who’s who of the Babes: Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Viollet, Pegg.
Bilbao is no longer at the top table of European football, having won the last of the club’s eight La Liga titles in the mid-1980s. But under Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, Bilbao has successfully married the traditional attacking Basque approach, to the one and two-touch close passing game the former national team manager prefers.
“They’ve got different qualities from a lot of Spanish teams,” Ferguson added.
“They press the ball very well and they’re not afraid to flood players forward in attack. They’re very positive and have no hesitation in committing themselves to attack at any point, with a number of players. It’s the best Athletic Bilbao team I’ve seen for some years.
“I’ve not met Marcelo Bielsa but I admire his work. He’s overseen the emergence of a very good, determined, organised Bilbao side with great belief. He’s instilled those qualities in his team. We’ll have to be strong at the back; if you offered me a 1-0 tomorrow I’d take it, as it’s much better than a 2-1 or 3-2.”
Ferguson will counter the threat by deploying a strong starting side, although there are bound to be changes to the team that beat Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last weekend. Indeed, Ferguson has largely used European competition to offer minutes to second-string players this term, and the strategy may not change at Old Trafford on Thursday.
Brazilian midfielder Anderson, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández, Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs are all in line to play some part in the fixture. However, having deployed a callow back-four and goalkeeper – to disastrous effect – against Ajax at Old Trafford last month, the Scot is likely to field the same rearguard that saw off Spurs on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bilbao arrive with one of Europe’s most sought after strikers in Llorente, who has scored 13 goals in 22 La Liga appearances this season. The 6’5″ striker provides an obvious aerial threat, but has proven a consistent goalscorer at both domestic and international level.
“Manchester are obviously the favourites. They always play Champions League and compete with teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Llorente told the Europa Press Association.
“They are one of the big teams in Europe and we’re novices. Rooney is a real killer. He has a great mentality and is a great inspiration for his team-mates. I expect a very exciting game. We are really looking forward to the game, and will do our utmost to get a good result. We have been doing quite well and might cause an upset.
“This round against Manchester United will be a key moment in my sporting career so far. After the World Cup in 2010 and the Copa del Rey final coming up, this is the most important match ever for me. To play at Old Trafford is a dream challenge for any footballer and now I am dreaming of success on that pitch. Matches like this are a special test of my ability.”
Bielsa has more than a single weapon in his locker though, with Markel Susaeta and outstanding youngster Iker Muniain offering Llorente support from the flanks. Pamplona-born Muniain, who has forced his way into the full Spain squad this season, is likely to attract big-money summer offers, with the 19-year-old being compared in style to Lionel Messi. Certainly Munaian’s diminutive build and pacey dribbling style could offer United’s right-back a genuine challenge.
The outstanding Javi Martinez, a defensive midfielder whom many home supporters would like to see in United red, will anchor Athletic’s engine room.
“We’re very proud and full of hope and excitement,” said Argentinian Bielsa, who managed the national team from 1998 to 2004.
“Taking on this Manchester United side, with what they’ve achieved, the great players they have, and the man responsible for getting them where they are, represents the highest level of competition for us.”
Should Bilbao pull off a result at Old Trafford, which is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given the hosts’ European form this season, Bielsa may readjust his ambition. History does not bode well for the visitors, with Athletic having lost half of the club’s 14 games against English sides. But make no mistake, Bilbao is close to the best sides United has faced in any European competition this season, even if the Basque side has lost its past two European away fixtures.
Manchester United versus Atletic Bilbao, Old Trafford, Europa League, Thursday 8 March 2012, 8.05pm
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Smalling, Fabio; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Young; Berbatov, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Evra, Evans, Fryers, Scholes, Park, Nani, Welbeck, Rooney, Owen.
Bilbao (4-3-3): Iraizoz; Iraola, Amorebieta, San Jose, Aurtenetxe; , Martínez, Herrera, Oscar; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniaín. Subs from: López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza
Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)
Assistant referees: Holger Henschel, Jan-Hendrik Salver
Additional assistant referees: Deniz Aytekin, Markus Wingenbach
Fourth official: Michael Weiner
Manchester United takes a two goal advantage into Thursday’s Europa League tie with Ajax at Old Trafford – a lead that Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to exploit by rotating his playing resources for the round of 32 tie. The United manager, Wednesday, took the unusual step of naming half his team for the game with the Dutch giants as Ferguson looks to ensure his men are fit and fresh for the Premier League matches to come. United faces Norwich City at Carrow Road less than 60 hours after concluding the tie with Ajax.
Changing up the United team is, of course, par for the course, for Ferguson, in Europe this season. Indeed, it is a factor many supporters point to in United’s failure to beat Benfica and FC Basel at Old Trafford in the autumn. Damaging draws with the pair at home left United in third place and out of the Champions League.
More pertinent is the sense that English teams, including United, have regressed this season. But, says the United manager, failure is not down to decline in his team, but to a temporary ‘blip’ in form. Some may question the logic, the day after United’s accounts showed that £225 million has been spent on debt buy back and interest payments in the past two years.
“Success in Europe can sometimes go in cycles,” Ferguson argued on Wednesday.
“Spain had a great cycle about 10 years ago when Valencia, Deportivo la Coruna, Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all dominant. We’ve had a great cycle in the Premier League for the eight years with teams getting to semi-finals and finals. I don’t see that subsiding. I think the English teams will continue to be dominant.
“We’ve had a bad year this year — United have in particular — but with Arsenal and Chelsea, disappointing results though they’ve had, both clubs have had injury problems and you cannot expect them to get the best results without their best teams. It has maybe been a disappointing season, but to my mind, it’s not definite that we’re on the slide.”
Meanwhile, the Scot will be without key striker Wayne Rooney, who has missed much of United’s preparation this week with a sore throat. The striker could return for United’s visit to Norwich City on Sunday. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia, along with long-term injured Nemanja Vidi&cacute, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Owen, miss out on Ajax’ first visit to Old Trafford since 1976.
Tom Cleverley, who is certain to start, may play his first 90 minutes since September as the 22-year-old midfielder continues his recovered from ankle injury. Meanwhile, Ferguson name-checked teenager Paul Pogba in his pre-match press conference, although the French midfielder is unlikely to start at Old Trafford. Pogba is subject of ongoing contract speculation, with Ferguson now using Rio Ferdinand as a conduit into the 18-year-old midfielder.
“Wayne is out tomorrow,” confirmed Ferguson.
“He has a really bad throat. There were traces of it in Amsterdam and we gave him some medication but it got worse. He has been in bed over the weekend and came in today for the first time and we are trying hard to get him right for Sunday.
“It is possible we could give Pogba a run-out. It depends because there are a lot of players who need a game; Nani, Young, Hernandez, Cleverley, Smalling, Jones. Those players will all play tomorrow and we hope to put a sprinkling of experience amongst it.
“Hopefully Tom will play a full game tomorrow. He’s back and it’s good to have him back. He gives us more ammunition in the midfield area, which was an area some people were worried about. Anderson’s back training with the first-team now as well.”
The Dutch side, comfortably beaten by United in Amsterdam last week, emerged victorious over NEC Nijmegen at the weekend – a 4-1 victory that brought merciful relief to a club that has suffered both on and off the pitch this season. Ajax scored three inside half an hour, with Dmitry Bulykin, unimpressive against United, hitting a brace. It is a result that will offer Frank de Boer’s troops at least some hope of turning the tie with United around on Thursday night.
For United, the fixture represents another opportunity to progress from an injury crisis that at times has claimed 11 names this season. With Anderson also back in training, Ferguson’s squad is at its most complete since the opening fixture of the season.
Meanwhile for key midfielder Cleverley the game represents another step on the road to full recovery in a frustrating season. Cleverley forced his way into both the United and England sides at the beginning of the season, only to be struck with the third serious – and long-term – injury of a short career.
“It’s good to be back,” said Cleverley on Wednesday, whose return to fitness comes at an opportune time for both club and country.
“It’s massively frustrating to be out for that length of time but I’m back now I’m fresh, I’m 100 percent and looking forward to the end of the season. I’m just working hard, trying to keep fit and I’m excited for the end of the season. I’m just concentrating on tomorrow night and then Sunday, for my club. If I can get into some good form between now and the end of the season, I’d be more than happy to be involved in the European Championship this summer.”
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to rest 37-year-old Paul Scholes, although Ryan Giggs may come back into contention for his 900th United appearance after sitting out the first leg in Amsterdam.
“Being in the Premier League as long as he has and having achieved what he has, I don’t think any other player will do that,” the United manager added of Giggs’ longevity.
“It’s amazing. When you look back to [the 2008 Champions League Final in] Moscow when he beat Bobby Charlton’s [appearance] record that night, you are talking about almost 100 games since then. It’s phenomenal. He keeps defying his age and this season he has just been the same as he was back in Moscow. His performance level, then to today, nothing has changed. He’s just amazing.”
Meanwhile, de Boer’s side arrives in better form than of late, yet boasting a record of three defeats in the past six matches. de Boer will be without Danish youngster Nicolai Boilesen, who suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury in the first leg. Theo Janssen and Bulykin are also doubts for the Europa League encounter.
However, de Boer can take positives from the way Ajax restricted United during the first half last week – a performance that drew criticism of his own side from Ferguson – and praise from the Dutch coach.
“The first half was played exactly how we want to see it,” said de Boer.
“Our organisation was good and we put pressure at the right moments. Of course United posed threats, but we had a good Kenneth Vermeer to answer them. We need to be realistic for the return – we’re going for 0-3! It will be a match to build some experience with. We’ll play our own game and not dig our heels in.
“We are not here just to see the scenery and we will see after the game what the result is. We will try to make life difficult for United – overall, it is a great opportunity for our players to play this game. There were some positives from the match in Holland and we want to repeat those things here.”
It could make for an open and attractive encounter.
Manchester United versus Ajax, Europa League, Old Trafford, Thursday 23 February 2012, 8.05pm.
Ajax (4-3-3): Vermeer; Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Anita, Koppers; Aissati, Eriksen, S. De Jong; Lodeiro, Özbiliz, Sulejmani. Subs from: Enoh, Blind, Cillessen, Ebicilio, Lukoki, Van Rhijn, Denswil, Veltman, Klaassen, Ligeon.
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Rafael, Fryers, Ferdinand, Park, Pogba, Berbatov.
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovakia)
Assistant referees: Primož Arhar, Matej Žunič
Additional assistant referees: Matej Jug, Slavko Vinčić
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.