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