AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 16: Phil Jones (L) of Manchester United duels for the ball with Dico Koppers of Ajax during the UEFA Europa League round of 32 first leg match between Ajax and Manchester United at Amsterdam Arena on February 16, 2012 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Here we go again: Thursday night, Channel Five! -- unless you're headed to Old Trafford of course. Despite having won a combined seven European Cups between them, Ajax and Manchester United have never met in the continent's grandest competition. Ajax's only previous appearance at Old Trafford came in 1976 during a 2-0 defeat by United in a first-round UEFA Cup tie -- which was the previous name for the Europa League. Just as it is now, the competition was Europe's second most prestigious then.
Thursday evening's match is the return fixture of a two-legged round of 32 Europa League knockout stage tie. Last week in Amsterdam, United earned themselves a two-goal advantage after Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) bagged 2nd half goals. If the Red Devils were to advance from this round, they would face the victors of the Lokomotiv Moscow versus Athletic Bilbao contest -- the Russian side has a 2-1 advantage over their Spanish counterparts ahead of their trip away to Bilbao.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting second in the Premier League table as they trail leaders Manchester City by two points. Only once have the Red Devils suffered defeat in their last eight matches in all competitions. That lone setback was by Liverpool FC in a FA Cup clash and because last weekend was devoted to that competition in England, United have not been in action since last week's match versus Ajax in Amsterdam.
Team News: The likes of captain Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, and Anders Lindegaard are all unavailable for this match due to either injury or illness. Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov did not travel with the club last week to Amsterdam due to apparent knocks but neither has been ruled out yet for this return fixture. Patrice Evra was left behind in England last week as well to be rested and his status is also uncertain. Anderson has rarely been available for the past few months but he has returned to first-team training this week.
Form Guide: The reigning Dutch champions currently sit 6th in the Eredivisie table and they are five points shy of a Champions League spot. Unlike United, Ajax had a match at the weekend as they convincingly beat NEC Nijmegen 4-1 in a league tie. The victory was only their second in all competitions since the new year.
Team News: Ajax have numerous injury concerns ahead of this tie. Nicolai Boilesen, Gregory van der Wiel, Theo Janssen, Eyong Enoh, and Dimitry Bulykin have all been ruled out for this match while both Derk Boerrigter and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson are doubts as well. Andre Ooijer should be available after recently recovering from injury.
United: At his pre-match press conference, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson strongly hinted at who would be selected:
"There are a lot of players who need a game, players who haven't been playing lately. Nani, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones... they all need games and they'll all play tomorrow in whatever position I decide to play them. Then we'll hope to get a sprinkling of experience amongst it."
- Ferguson | Source: ManUtd.com
He also hinted at the possible inclusion of youngster Paul Pogba. When directly asked about it, here was the response:
"It's possible, but it depends on the rest of the team."
The United boss shared this as well in regards to midfielders Tom Cleverley and Ando:
"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."
In goal, David de Gea is the clear No. 1 with Lindegaard out but third-choice Ben Amos could be given a start. At center-back, any two of Smalling, Jones, Jonny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand is possible. Evans could likely use a break but may still feature while Ferdinand -- and his chronic back ailment -- may be given a rest prior to United's upcoming weekend league match at Norwich City. At right-back, any of Rafael, Jones, and Smalling is possible but the Brazilian may be selected for this match while either Jones or Smalling may be preferred in this position on Sunday in order to help United compete better against Norwich's aerial threat. At left-back, Patrice Evra is Fergie's first-choice but Fabio may deputize for the Frenchman -- just as he ably did last week.
In midfield, Fergie indicated that Cleverley will start and it's possible that the young Englishman may be joined by his early-season midfield partner Anderson. Fergie gave a list of players that could play in "whatever position" -- perhaps this hints at Jones joining Cleverley in the center of the park. If Jones starts in defense, then Pogba may indeed get a start. Giggs, Michael Carrick, and Paul Scholes are all possible as well.
In attack, Chicharito appears a guarantee to start and if United use a two-striker system, then his partner will be either Berbatov or Danny Welbeck. On the flanks, Ashley Young and Nani appear to be starting but Park Ji-sung is a possibility as well.
Ajax: For Ajax manager Frank De Boer, injuries have simplified his selection choices. Kenneth Vermeer is his No. 1 while Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are first-choice at center-back. With van der Wiel injured, Dico Koppers likely deputises at right-back while the choice is between Vurnon Anita or Ricardo Van Rhijn at left-back. In a three-man central-midfield, Christian Eriksen and Siem de Jong are probable as the most advanced players while either Anita or Ismail Aissati could be deployed in a holding-role. In the front three, Miralem Sulejmani, Aras Ozbiliz, and Lorenzo Ebicilio appear most likely to start but Nicolas Lodeiro and Jody Lukoki are in contention as well.
WHAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON
* Ajax's approach?: Quite obviously, Ajax are going to have to come out and play because of their two-goal deficit. The Dutch side is capable of effectively pressing high up the pitch as their front three harass the opposition's back four while their advanced central-midfielders look to cut out passing lanes with intelligent zonal marking. Look for Ajax to possibly do this from the match's onset as they quickly hope to pull back a goal. High-intensity pressing isn't sustainable over a full 90 minutes for any side, especially for one that likely is not to drastically dominate possession (you have to press more when you have the ball less). The drawback to this is the possibility of leaving yourself open in the back when the opposition counterattacks.
* United's approach?: The big psychological worry is that United may be complacent when the match starts. This mindset could be disastrous if Ajax come out intensely pressing. This potential problem could be compounded if United play conservatively in this match. What approach will United take in this match? Will they keep it conservative and make sure they always have adequate numbers behind the ball? If so, could that mean a 4-5-1/4-3-3ish shape? Or will they look to extend their lead by having go at Ajax? Will they have a go early and then look to play possession-based football in the 2nd half (if United still hold the lead) by using a potential midfield trio that could involve any of Cleverley, Scholes, Carrick, or Pogba? One thing is certain -- United will likely have space to hit Ajax on the counter or in behind a high-line during the stretches of play when Ajax actively play high up the pitch. The pace of Chicharito, Nani, and Young could be lethal when this happens if they're not wasteful with this their final product. The ability to hit long diagonal balls to the flanks or accurately-weighted through balls for Chicharito through the channels will be key as well -- the deep-lying players are key for the former while Berbatov and the central-midfielders could be key for the latter.
* Jan Vertonghen: Everyone is aware of Eriksen by now and he certainly will be one everyone will still keep an eye on. However, there is another Ajax player that is on the radar of Premier League clubs -- center-back Vertonghen. The 24-year-old captain was reportedly scouted last week in person last week at Amsterdam ArenA by Tottenham Hotspur scouts. The left-footed defender is scouted to be very good in aerial duels, tough when tackling, and able to get forward into midfield from his center-back position in order to provide support to the attack. Vertonghen may be a player that United fans will see more of in upcoming seasons.
KO: 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
TV: Channel Five (U.K.), DIRECTV/Gol TV (U.S.A.)
Referee: Damir Skomina
Odds: Manchester United 1/3, Draw 15/4, Ajax 8/1
TBB prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Ajax (4-1 aggregate)