Manchester United takes on Ajax almost six years to the day since the Reds last European final – few could have predicted that the face of the club would have changed so dramatically in the intervening time. The Reds’ 3-1 “hiding”- as Sir Alex Ferguson put it – at the hands of Barcelona in 2011 marked the natural end of a successful period in the team’s history. Could another one begin in Stockholm on Wednesday night?
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
Ahead of Manchester United’s double-header with Ajax over the coming week, United Rant looks back to a Dutch great who played for both clubs….
If you christen a son Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren then clearly you feel he is destined for great things in life. To be fair Mr. and Mrs. Mühren were not to be disappointed as their son enjoyed a fine career in football.
After beginning his footballing journey in his native Holland, with FC Volendam, Arnold moved to the legendary Ajax academy where the ball becomes a most prized possession and to be wasteful with it is tantamount to sacrilege. Blessed with natural ability that countless England managers of the time would have loved in domestic players, Mühren was a football purist that delighted those lucky enough to observe at close hand.
During Arnold’s first stay at the home of ‘Total Football’ the midfielder picked up a European Cup winner’s medal in 1972/73. After moving to FC Twente in 1974, Mühren was spotted by Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson, who had been become increasingly frustrated with the lack of invention found in British players in the late 1970s. A keen student of the Dutch game, Robson did what his English managerial counterparts failed to consider and snapped up the cultured midfielder for a not insignificant sum of £150,000.
To say that Mühren became a trailblazer for modern day foreign imports is not an understatement. Yes, there had been other imports to the English First Division before the Dutchman was signed by the sleepy Suffolk club in 1978, but few had made the impact of Mühren and his compatriot Frans Thijssen – signed by Ipswich a year later.
I am one of lucky few to witness firsthand experience of Mühren’s time at Ipswich, as my first encounters with live football were at Portman Road in the early 1980s. It was a timewhen Ipswich challenged more traditional powerhouses such as Liverpool and Aston Villa at the top of English football. My first match is vivid in the memory, despite being temporarily blinded in one eye by the cigarette ash of the gentleman sat next to me. I marvelled at the skill of this Dutch duo who swept through the opposition midfield to help augment Ipswich’s place in the higher echelons of the league table.
Although the league championship was beyond the Suffolk minnows, Ipswich achieved the remarkable feat of lifting the UEFA Cup in 1981, beating Dutch club AZ Alkamar in the two-legged final. Manager Robson was smitten with the slightly built left-footed genius he had signed for the club.
“I cannot think of anyone I would rate higher as a professional than Arnold,” said Robson of Mühren.
“No one works harder, and when the match is over, he won’t go out drinking. He goes to bed.”
With the league championship elusive after four years at the club, and his mentor Robson accepting the England management role, Mühren joined Manchester United in 1982. Manager Ron Atkinson was keen to add the flair and guile of the Dutchman to the power and determination of Bryan Robson in the Reds’ midfield. Mühren made his debut against Birmingham City on 28 August ‘82 and went on to score six goals that season, helping United to the final of both domestic cup competitions at Wembley.
The midfielder started the first of those finals – the wonderfully titled Milk Cup – without the injured Robson in the United midfield, but alongside Remi Moses, Ray Wilkins and Steve Coppell. Norman Whiteside emphasised his claim to be the most exciting teenager in European football with the opening strike, turning the vastly more experienced Alan Hansen, only for United to be beaten by Liverpool 2-1. A wonderfully curled effort by Ronnie Whelan in extra time broke United’s hearts in front of a crowd close to 100,000.
Mühren had a far greater impact in the FA Cup final a few months later. Following an exciting 2-2 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, with the south coast club relegated from the top division that season, United crushed the Seagulls in the replay. Robson and Mühren were at the heart of the action, with ‘Captain Marvel’ selflessly foregoing the chance of a rare Cup Final hat-trick in the second half by allowing regular penalty taker Mühren to fire home United’s final goal in a 4-0 victory from the spot.
Victory at Wembley meant the club was back in Europe the following season, competing in the Cup Winners’ Cup, in which United went out at the semi-final stage. Mühren scored four goals in the tournament and was instrumental in the Reds overturning a two goal deficit against Barcelona in the quarter-final. This was no mean feat considering Barça’s was a side containing Diego Maradona and Bernt Schuster. The atmosphere at Old Trafford for the second leg was electric as the Reds progressed against the odds with goals from Robson, twice, and Frank Stapleton. Sadly, this was to be the last glorious European night at the Theatre of Dreams that season as United was eliminated in the semi-final by Juventus.
Mühren’s final season of at United, 1984/85, was blighted by injury and the midfielder made only 12 starts. Mühren’s few appearances that season has been oft cited as a contributing factor to Alan Brazil’s lack of goals as the pair had enjoyed a seemingly telepathic understanding when playing together at Ipswich. In truth Brazil was past his best and susceptible to injury – another example of a big name striker who failed to make the grade at Old Trafford.
Mühren returned to Ajax after failing to regain his place in the United first team in the run-up to the 1985 FA Cup Final. In truth, Mühren’s peak in English football had come under Robson’s tutelage at Portman Road but many United fans will remember with fondness the waif-like figure on the left-flank with magic in his boots.
In 1986/87 Mühren added the Cup Winners Cup to his collection, thus becoming one of few to have won all three UEFA club competitions. Then came the crowning glory of a glittering career with Holland at the 1988 European Championships. Few will forget Marco Van Basten’s wonderful far post volley against the Soviet Union in the final that sealed a 2-0 victory. Many have forgotten that the pinpoint left-footed cross came boot of 37-year-old Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren, thus cementing his place in the folklore of Dutch football.
The goal was a testament to Mühren’s work ethic and clean living, enabling the player to contribute in such a big way at a late stage in his career. Sir Bobby was always a fine judge of talent but even he may have been surprised at the career forged by one of the most influential exports into English football of all time.
Read more from James at Written Offside – writtenoffside.com
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
It has been more than a little busy for Sir Alex Ferguson this week, whose squad arrived back in Manchester after a successful tour of the United States. No sooner had the squad checked in at Carrington than it split in two, with seven players and Ferguson heading towards Marseille for a charity match on Tuesday night. Many others will join up with Edwin van der Sar in Amsterdam for the great Dutchman’s testimonial on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s game, which a Manchester United XI lost 8-2 to the home side, was held in aid of former Marseille goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta’s charity “Un sourire, un espoir pour la vie” – a smile, a hope for life. Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones started for the visitors, while reserve teenage midfielder Paul Pogba was a second half substitute.
That United’s players were joined by former Red Fabian Barthez, David Ginola and even a local pop-star said much about the relaxed nature of the game, which at best offered Ferguson’s players additional minutes on the park ahead of Sunday’s Community Shield fixture with Manchester City at Wembley. Goals from Cleverley and Welbeck brought United back into the tie at 2-2 before Marseille ran away with the match in the second half; a relaxed Ferguson worried not a jot.
On to Amsterdam then for an afternoon of games in honour of van der Sar, who retired this summer. It promises to be an emotional occasion for the former Ajax goalkeeper, who returns to face the side with which the 40-year-old began his career in 1990. More than 800 games for Ajax, Juventus, Fulham, United and Holland have followed for one of the all-time greats in his position and a gentleman to boot.
van der Sar is staging a unique occasion at the Amsterdam Arena, which comprises not a full match but a series of games. First, van der Sar’s son Joe will play for United Under-13s against Ajax’ age-group team. Then the European Cup winning Ajax side of 1995 takes on Cup of Nations’ champions Holland from 1998. Finally fans will see ‘Edwin’s Dream Team’ take on Ajax in an hour-long encounter.
United first teamers Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney have joined the party in the Dutch capital, while former Reds Gary Neville and Louis Saha will also be in the team.
“Hopefully it’ll be a great night,” van der Sar told official rag manutd.com.
“It’s a chance for fans to see some top players and some of the current up-and-coming stars for Ajax. It’s 12 years since I left Ajax, so I’m really looking forward to going back and seeing old friends. I’m grateful for their support with the event. This is the perfect way to say goodbye.
“And I’m delighted the manager, Rene [Meulensteen] and the players are coming over for the game. I’d like to thank fans and staff at United for six great years. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I see you again.”
Then on Friday United takes on New York Cosmos at Old Trafford in Paul Scholes’ testimonial. Cosmos is a club without a team, a franchise sans stadium. Little more than a badge, a marketing ploy, a rich man’s wet dream. For Scholes, all style and substance during a truly wonderful 20 year career at Old Trafford, the opposition is, of course, an oxymoron.
The opposition does possess something United does not though: Eric Cantona. The 45-year-old is not a man, he is… a brand ambassador and Cosmos’ Director of Soccer. Even if the title sounds incongruent it takes nothing away from the five years Cantona gave to United before walking away in 1997. He is remembered, as always, with undying affection by Old Trafford regulars, even if the make-up of the club’s support has changed beyond recognition since the Frenchman’s retirement.
For the expected full-house, whether fans come to pay homage to heroes old or more recent, the occasion will be no disappointment.
On to the real thing then: Sunday’s game with City – billed as a portent for the upcoming season at hype-obsessed Sky – marks the start of 328 days of continuous competitive football, ending with Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland. By the end of the coming season United may well be English Champions for a 20th time. Few will bet against it even if Ferguson is unable to land the additional midfielder than so many supporters crave.
Ferguson will likely use the tie as a final warm-up before the Premier League season begins on 14 August. One wonders whether City – the noisy cross-town neighbours – will be a little more circumspect. With genuine pretensions to the title Roberto Mancini’s men, now boasting £38 million Sergio Aguëro in the squad, will surely want to strike the first psychological blow of the season.