United edged into the last 16 of the Europa League by virtue of last week’s clinical victory in Amsterdam, as Ajax earned a deserved second leg victory at Old Trafford.
Chicharito capped a swift United breakaway to open the scoring in the sixth minute, only for the visitors to hit back and level before the break through Aras Ozbiliz’s 20-yard effort.
The visitors went for broke after the interval, and had United on the ropes for a 10-minute period in which David De Gea produced a wonderful, point-blank save to deny Siem de Jong.
Nerves were set jangling with three minutes remaining when the unmarked Toby Alderweireld powered home a header from Ozbiliz’s free-kick, but the Reds withstood the visitors’ late pressure to squeak into the next round, where Athletic Bilbao await.
United’s starting line-up featured four changes to that which had won in Amsterdam a week earlier, as Rafael Chris Smalling, Ji-sung Park and Dimitar Berbaov replaced Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney respectively. Ferdinand’s absence meant Phil Jones moved into central defence, while Ji-sung Park skippered the side.
Ajax, with a two-goal deficit to overturn, reprised their 4-3-3 approach with two changes from the side beaten a week earlier; as Nicolas Lodeiro and Ricardo van Rhijn stepped in for Ismail Aissati and the injured Dmitri Bulykin.
United sought to swiftly put the tie to bed and threatened within the opening minute. Berbatov held up the ball on the left flank and fed Nani, whose shimmy inside and low shot worked visiting goalkeeper, Kenneth Vermeer. Fortunately for the Ajax stopper, the ball rebounded just out of the reach of Park.
The South Korean, who looked sharp from the first whistle, made a telling contribution as United took the lead in the sixth minute. Park’s interception of a cross-field pass redirected the ball to Berbatov, who quickly released Chicharito. The Mexican shimmied away from Toby Alderweireld and arrowed a left-footed finish past the helpless Vermeer.
Another United counter-attack almost yielded a second goal in the 15th minute, as Fabio neatly won possession and burst forward before releasing Chicharito, whose sliding ball across the area was hooked away from the lurking Berbatov by Jan Vertonghen.
Ajax’s noteworthy ripostes invariably involved the highly-rated Christian Eriksen. The Danish youngster had already had one 20-yard effort deflected narrowly wide before his surging run teed up Miralem Sulejmani, only for the Serbian to blaze over the bar.
Siem de Jong burst infield and scuffed a shot wide before Aras Ozbiliz drew a smart catch from David De Gea with a neat turn and shot, as the visitors sought to haul themselves back in the tie.
Inevitably, United’s counter-attacking menace also spawned openings. A crafty reverse-ball from Nani released Berbatov but, as he bore down on goal, the Bulgarian attempted to square to Chicharito instead of going for goal himself, and Alderweireld was able to deflect the ball clear.
The hosts would soon rue that spurned chance to bury the tie. With eight minutes of the first period remaining, a sustained period of Ajax pressure culminated in Siem de Jong teeing up Ozbiliz just outside the area, and the Turk’s shot rocketed past De Gea, via a slight deflection off Jones.
Though there was a hint of handball by Lodeiro in the build-up to the equaliser, United could only reflect on spurned chances to end the tie. To their credit, however, the Reds ended the first period in the ascendancy and Vermeer needed to palm away Cleverley’s curling effort in the final act of an evenly-contested first period.
Ajax began the second period with an immediate change, introducing midfielder Davy Klaassen for left-back Dico Koppers and reverting to a three-man defence, with de Jong as a deep-lying midfield screen. The shift, allied to their pressing need to score at least twice more, gave Frank de Boer’s side the greater impetus early on.
Lodeiro fired wastefully over from 10 yards before De Gea produced a stunning reaction save to tip de Jong’s close-range header over the bar. United repeatedly nabbed possession, but squandered it in promising positions, prompting a swift rejig from Sir Alex Ferguson. Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans replaced Cleverley and Young, with Jones moving forward into central midfield.
The move stymied Ajax’s pressure and put the game back on an even keel, before the introduction of Danny Welbeck in place of Berbatov added verve to United’s attack. Within two minutes, Nani led a rapid Reds break and thundered a left-footed shot against the top of Vermeer’s crossbar.
Just as the game was meandering to a close, however, Ajax breathed new life into it as Alderweireld rose, unmarked, to power home Ozbiliz’s free-kick and send the travelling support wild.
It was too little, too late, however. United saw out the final nervy moments in relative comfort and booked a place in the last 16, which will provide another opportunity for this young, burgeoning side to test themselves in the unforgiving arena of European football.
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