Manchester United have one foot in the Europa League round of 16 after goals from Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez in Amsterdam gave the Reds a 2-0 first-leg lead against Ajax.
But while Sir Alex’s men will be confident of completing the job at Old Trafford next Thursday, nothing should be taken for granted. After all, this was no walk in the park.
Indeed, the Reds encountered stiff opposition in Ajax, themselves a club steeped in history and, like United, more accustomed to life in the Champions League. So it was no surprise that on Thursday night the four-times kings of Europe put aside poor recent domestic form to stand toe-to-toe with Sir Alex’s men for almost an hour.
It was only in the 59th minute that Ashley Young broke the deadlock with a low, crisp finish that set the Reds on the way to what was Sir Alex Ferguson’s first ever UEFA Cup win with Manchester United. And while it’s not the European trophy supporters usually yearn for, the message from inside the Reds camp in the build-up to the game was clear: “We’re in it to win it.”
Sir Alex certainly picked a side he hoped would be strong enough to finish off the tie in the first leg. The spine was particularly robust, with starts for David De Gea, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney. There was also a much-anticipated return for midfielder Tom Cleverley, playing his first football since 29 October when he limped off against Everton at Goodison Park with an ankle injury.
Phil Jones and Nani, both of whom had missed United’s last four fixtures were additional welcome returns, while Fabio was preferred at left-back with Patrice Evra left behind in Manchester.
Somewhat predictably, two teams with such rich footballing pedigree took time to size each other up. Short passing and an emphasis on keeping possession were key features in the game’s opening stages; shots on targets and goalmouth action were not.
Indeed, it took until the 18th minute for either goalkeeper to be forced into making anything that even resembled a save, and even then it was unclear if Dico Koppers’ tame effort was a shot or a cross.
Wayne Rooney’s ambitious chip a minute later also proved easy pickings for Ajax stopper Kenneth Vermeer, who then showed great speed and courage to dart off his line and claim the ball at Javier Hernandez’s feet. Rooney’s clever pass had released the Mexican, but glimpses of Rooney’s creativity were fleeting in the opening period, owning largely to Ajax midfielder Ismail Aissati.
It was Toby Alderweireld, though, who denied Wayne with a vital block just before the half-hour mark, less than a minute after Ajax had threatened themselves at the other end. Ferdinand did well to head clear a dangerous cross but the ball fell to Aissati, whose volley was cleared en route to goal by Fabio.
If De Gea’s first save of the night was simple, his second was sublime. Siem de Jong unleashed a bullet from 25 yards that looked destined for the top corner until the Spaniard threw himself to his left and tipped the ball around the post.
A mini aerial onslaught followed, during which Ajax slung cross after cross into the penalty area. Dmitri Bulykin headed one presentable chance over the bar but otherwise the Reds’ rearguard stood firm.
De Gea’s palms were then stung once more – this time rumoured United target Christian Eriksen was allowed space to advance from midfield – and Ferdinand escaped a strong penalty appeal on the stroke of half-time when he tangled with Miralem Sulejmani, as the home side grew in confidence.
The half-time break stunted Ajax’s momentum and the Reds emerged sharpest, Nani drawing a fine save from Vermeer within 90 seconds of the restart before the goalkeeper again thwarted Hernandez at the striker’s feet. The 26-year-old also had his own defenders trying to beat him: Alderweireld’s header would have crept inside the post were it not for his diving intervention.
Vermeer was finally beaten just before the hour mark by Young, who collected Nani’s low cross at the back post before calmly stepping inside one onrushing defender and firing the ball low and hard down the centre of the goal. It was Young’s first United goal since his dramatic equaliser against FC Basel at Old Trafford back in late September and it delighted the thousands of travelling Reds who made the short trip to Amsterdam.
Celebrations were almost cut short when Eriksen skipped free of Jones on the halfway line on 73 minutes and made a beeline for goal. De Gea was again equal to the test, though, and beat away the Swede’s stinging effort to preserve United’s slender lead.
With five minutes to play, substitute Antonio Valencia surged forward and Hernandez combined well with Rooney before tucking away United’s second with a cool finish underneath Vermeer.
The Dutch may not be used to mountains, but Frank de Boer’s men now have a sizeable one to climb next Thursday at Old Trafford. It’s advantage United after a job well done in Amsterdam.
First blood drawn!
Glory Glory ManUnited