By Jason Freeman.
1) Europa League will be taken seriously
Manchester United exited the Champions League back in December at the group stages, something that hadn’t happened since 2005. Due to this, we find ourselves in Amsterdam playing in the Europa League against Ajax. When we exited the Champions League, many fans including me immediately said that we should just play the youngsters in the tournament but as time has gone on, fans have grown to the idea of wanting to win the tournament and Sir Alex himself has said many times since December that he wants to win the tournament. Sir Alex put out a side that showed he wants to win the tournament, although that may be partly due to their being no Premier League game this weekend. The performance did not really suggest we want to win the tournament, but it was a performance that we have regularly seen in European away games over the years, it wasn’t pretty but it was enough to win the game and it was comfortable in the end and leaves us in a great position to progress with the 2nd leg at Old Trafford. However as I mentioned above, there is no game this weekend for United but with a tough away game against Norwich just 3 days after the 2nd leg it will be interesting to see the team Sir Alex puts out, something that will perhaps be more indicative of how serious we are going to take the Europa League. What is for certain though is that we are in this tournament, and we are in it to win it so let’s get behind the team.
2) Injuries: 5 in, 1 out.
After a good pre-season where none of our players got injured at any point, since the start of the season all players at the club have been injured at some point and given these injuries it’s brilliant that we’re still in a position to win the league. There were returns for 5 players against Ajax at a point of the season where squad depth is needed; Nani, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Fabio da Silva all started the game after periods on the sidelines. Nani and Ashley Young both struggled in the game, Nani understandably so considering he hadn’t trained until he arrived in Amsterdam and had spent the time he was out injured recovering in Portugal. Both players improved to an extent in the second half. Cleverley, Jones and Fabio all settled into the game straight away which is unsurprising as Cleverley and Fabio were in the matchday squad to face Liverpool on Saturday and have been training for a few weeks now, however like Nani and Young, more will be expected over the coming months from all 3 and they are all capable of doing so.
Despite these 5 players returning from injury, we unfortunately lost form winger Antonio Valencia to a hamstring injury after he came on for Young on 75 minutes, he lasted just 10 minutes before picking up an injury after being involved in the build up to the Hernandez goal. Valencia’s injury has come as a big blow as he has been our best player since returning to the starting 11.
3) Cleverley returns
Tom Cleverley has been one of the most talked about youngsters at the club this season and he had only made 7 appearances this season before the game against Ajax. During his time out through injury he has been seen among fans as a big miss in the squad after the impressive football the team played at the start of the season when he was present and the not so impressive football that we have seen while he has been injured. In the 60 minutes Cleverley played against Ajax, he showed glimpses of what he can do. His passing was very accurate and when off the ball he was always looking to get into space to receive the ball back. Despite being a more attacking minded player, he put in a good shift defensively too, winning the ball back on a few occasions through tackling and interceptions. At just 22 and with only 8 appearances for Man United under his belt it is important not to place too much pressure on him and lower expectations but if he improves on this performance and stays injury free, it will be a big boost in the club’s quest for title number 20.
4) Another encouraging defensive display
The back 5 have come in for criticism during the season with some unconvincing performances but after conceding 3 goals against Chelsea, the defence has been much better, unlucky to not keep a clean sheet on Saturday and limited Ajax tonight to long shots mainly and the defence dealt with everything Ajax threw at them with ease. As I mentioned in 5 things on Saturday, Ferdinand and Evans are arguably the best centre back partnership we have with Vidic out and they showed again why with both performing excellently, both read the game well and made crucial interceptions and clearances. Evans is improving game by game and becoming a very good player and has become a regular fixture this season and has been very consistent proving many of the doubters wrong. De Gea is another who has come in for a lot of criticism this season, most of which has been unfair, but over the past few games he has shown glimpses of the talent he has and he did so again tonight pulling off a brilliant save from a Siem De Jong shot that seemed destined for the top corner. The clean sheet, his first since December, will provide him with confidence that has been slowly building back up since his return to the first team and this is important going in to the business end of the season.
The 2 full backs, Fabio and Jones, coming back after injury performed very well in both attack and defence, both delivering good crosses and making some very good runs forward and also winning back possession. It is unlikely either did enough to displace first choice full backs, Evra and Rafael but they showed they are capable to step up if either are unavailable.
5) Javier Hernandez: Goal Machine
Hernandez, so far this term has had a difficult second season at the club, having lost his place in the team to the very impressive Danny Welbeck, who has struck up a good partnership with Wayne Rooney. Welbeck also offers more outside the box than Hernandez but perhaps lacks the goal scoring ability of the Mexican. Hernandez has also picked up a few injuries along the way this season, missing the beginning of the season due to concussion and picking up an ankle injury at the beginning of December. There is one thing he hasn’t found difficult though and that is scoring goals when given a chance, now joint second on the club’s top scorers list for the season scoring 9 goals from 26 appearances, just 14 of which have been starts. Impressing in his first season with his brilliant movement, pace and finishing, he has found opportunities to show these qualities this season hard to come by but he showed these qualities tonight and ended the night with a goal which will certainly have helped his confidence greatly. There are however a number of areas in his game he needs to improve on and he needs to learn not to drift offside as much as he does as far too often he gets caught out, turning over possession to the opposition but he has a real knack of scoring goals and scoring them at important times and with a goal tonight, he can hopefully build on that, stay injury free and continue to score goals as he’s got plenty in him.