Manchester United are back in European action on Thursday evening as they travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax. Despite the fixture being played out in the Europa League, it is certainly a glamorous tie, and wouldn’t look out of place in the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition. And with Sir Alex Ferguson stating he will field his strongest side, it promises to be an entertaining and enthralling affair.
Man United will head into the encounter at the Amsterdam Arena full of confidence, after defeating Liverpool 2-1 in Saturday’s passionate derby. The score line didn’t really reflect the balance of the game, with the Red Devils completely outplaying their rivals for large periods, but only managing to find the net twice. Wayne Rooney was on hand on both occasions, volleying in from close range, before coolly slotting under Pepe Reina, after Antonio Valencia’s perfectly weighted pass. A late Luis Suarez strike didn’t threaten to ruin United’s day, although the result was overshadowed by the tempestuous Uruguayan’s refusal to shake Patrice Evra’s hand. The Frenchman however had the last laugh as he celebrated a vital three points.
Sir Alex will be hoping his charges can hit the ground running after stuttering through their six group games in the Champions League, finishing third in the group. Such were their struggles that they only won twice, and even then those victories were against whipping boys Otelul Galati.
Undoubtedly Ajax will prove a tough test, although they aren’t as imperious as they once were. The four times Champions League winners sit a lowly sixth in the Dutch Eredivisie, despite only losing once at home in the league this season. In Europe they fared similarly to the Reds, only winning twice, but they had a much harder group with the likes of Lyon and Real Madrid. United will have to be at the top of their game if they are to progress.
Team Selection Thoughts
David De Gea looks set to start in goal again with Anders Lindegaard still on the sidelines. The young Spaniard has shown glimpses of his potential in recent weeks, with important saves against Chelsea and Liverpool helping earn the Reds vital points. Having a settled number one breeds confidence, allowing the defence to strike up an understanding with the keeper. United have seemingly chopped and changed between the sticks all season, but De Gea can now cement his place there if he performs consistently.
At the back, United have been boosted by the return of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, although Patrice Evra hasn’t travelled to Holland. With no domestic action at the weekend, Rio Ferdinand is set to start, with Sir Alex hinting at playing his strongest possible eleven. Jonny Evans would hope to keep a staring place after an excellent performance against Liverpool, and it looks as though he and Ferdinand are starting to gel. The Da Silva twins could take up the right and left back positions, although Ferguson may opt for Smalling over Rafael if he wants a little more height.
In midfield Tom Cleverley could return to first team action, but the silky creator will probably have to settle for a place on the bench. Michael Carrick should continue their though, however he won’t be joined by Ryan Giggs who hasn’t travelled. Paul Scholes has made the trip and could partner Carrick. The ginger prince has been a revelation since announcing his comeback in January and hasn’t looked out of place. He changed the game against Chelsea and has controlled proceedings against Liverpool twice, proving too elusive to handle. Hopefully he will be spraying passes for Antonio Valencia to run on to and with Nani back in the squad, United have a plethora of wide attacking options. Park and Young are also in contention and realistically Sir Alex could name any two of the four in his starting eleven.
Up top Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck are the strikers at the manager’s disposal, with Dimitar Berbatov not being named in the twenty strong travelling party. Hernandez is likely to get the nod, after recent appearances from the bench, and he should partner Rooney. The pair have been unable to really click this year but Thursday night would be a good starting point, taking into account the hectic run in.
Three Key Battles
Christian Eriksen vs. Michael Carrick
The 20 year old Danish star is an exciting attacking midfielder, with big clubs, including United, being linked with him. He likes to play in the hole between midfield and defence and Carrick will have to keep a close eye on him to stop him dictating play. If Eriksen is allowed time and space he will pose many problems, not only with his eye for a pass, but his powerful shot as well.
Antonio Valencia vs. Vurnon Anita
Valencia has been in scintillating form since returning to the first team in December, and looks more confident every time he plays. He made Jose Enrique look distinctly average on Saturday and if selected will give Anita a lot to think about. The Ecuadorian’s pace, power and directness are unplayable at times, and it is an area that United should look to exploit.
Wayne Rooney vs. Back Four
Rooney has looked very sharp in his last two games, and there are suggestions that he is getting back to top form, with four goals in his last two games, taking his tally for the season in all competitions to 22. On his day he is unstoppable and the Ajax rearguard will have their work cut out to keep him quiet. Because Rooney likes to drop off he is very difficult to mark, and defenders are unsure whether to go with him or stay back. This means Rooney can collect the ball in front of the defence before either threading the eye of the needle for a team mate, or having a go at goal himself. Should he start, he could well prove the difference.
Ajax haven’t been in the best form recently but that won’t mean anything come Thursday evening, and the Reds will be in for a very tough game. Eriksen is one to be wary of but United have plenty of players that can hurt the Dutch side.
A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for the Red Devils, but victory would be the outcome Sir Alex is hoping for and that is certainly a very achievable result.
Register with the Stretford End Arising forum.