Look at how happy those boys are after finding out that they made my starting XI!
I was going share my preferred Manchester United starting XI and the reasoning behind those selections for tonight's Europa League match versus Ajax in the comments section of our match preview. However, I decided instead to write out this post. If you have assumed that I do not have direct access to Sir Alex Ferguson's phone in his Old Trafford office, you would be correct. Thus, my opinion obviously means little in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, I thought it would be a fun exercise -- with consideration to our obvious desire to win this two-legged tie against Ajax, the upcoming league match at the weekend away to Norwich City, and the need and/or desire to get certain squad members a game -- to name the eleven players that I'd like to see on the pitch tonight at Old Trafford. A brief description of my reasoning follows the selection of each player.
* David de Gea (goalkeeper): Normally, I'd have no issue with giving Ben Amos a game like this. However, due to the impressive recent form of the Spaniard, I think it is important to keep giving him games. Perhaps a continual run of games like this can raise the confidence of the youngster prior to the upcoming run-in. In addition, this is already a competition that de Gea won with Atletico Madrid in the past and continental football doesn't expose his nervy command of the box as much as does the physical and direct playing style of the Premier League.
* Chris Smalling (center-back): Fergie has already indicated that Smalling is a player that will feature in this match. The 22-year-old has recently returned from injury and is a player that is in need of a game. He will certainly be an important player for the run-in as his versatility allows him to provide cover at center-back when Rio Ferdinand's chronic back issue flares up and he can also do a job at right-back -- a position where United currently don't have a clear first-choice. The sideways arrows in the diagram indicate that he can play a 'covering' or 'sweeping' role in defense.
* Phil Jones (center-back): Jones is another player that Fergie said would be selected for this match. However, the player's versatility means that he could feature at either center-back, right-back, or in central-midfield. My preference is at center-back so that Jonny Evans can be given a rest -- the Northern Irishman has logged heavy minutes as of late. Jones' selection would also enable Ferdinand to be rested ahead of Sunday's clash at Carrow Road. The 20-year-old could be the more combative center-back of the two and his somewhat vulnerability in aerial duels while deployed at center-back is not as much of a concern in European football. He also provides the added benefit of being able to step out of the back and into midfield in support of the attack.
* Rafael (right-back): The energetic Brazilian has been given a run of games after his recent recovery from shoulder surgery. Rafa is probably the ideal player in the squad to eventually earn being first-choice at right-back due to the balance he provides -- his marauding runs and crossing ability supplements the attack well while the bite that he shows helps him adequately tend to his defending duties. Let him get the start versus Ajax and then use either Smalling or Jones as protection at right-back versus the aerial threat that Norwich displays.
* Fabio (left-back): Selecting Rafael's twin brother Fabio makes sense for a number of reasons. First of all, first-choice left-back Patrice Evra has played too many minutes this season and he needs to be rotated. The Frenchman is also certain to be selected at the weekend so this Ajax match is a good opportunity for him to be rested. In addition, Fabio's constant injuries have prevented him from getting games and it has also prevented him from competing to be first-choice at either full-back spot. This is another opportunity for Fabio to get a game and also show Fergie that he may have another option other than Evra at left-back. The United vice-captain has been poor this season.
* Tom Cleverley (central-midfield): Cleverley is another that Fergie said will play and the manager hopes that the player can go the full 90 minutes tonight. The hopes are high for the talented midfield and getting him games after his recent return from injury is important for his form and fitness. The 22-year-old -- along with the club and it's supporters -- desires to establish himself as a key player for both United and England. His energy allows to drop deep to pick up the ball from defenders so that he can ignite attacks. In addition, this same energy is vital to his well-timed late-arriving runs into the box.
* Paul Pogba (central-midfield): Fergie hinted that the starlet could be included and this possibility has supporters excited. Pogba recently made his Premier League debut in January against Stoke City and Ajax could potentially be the opponents for his European debut. The technically and physically gifted midfielder likely would partner Cleverley well in the center of the park -- the biggest concern would be a lack of experience and thus, a possible vulnerability while attempting to shield the back four due to positioning and decision-making concerns. The 18-year-old's contract runs out at United in the summer and it is rumored that Serie A side Juventus have offered a four-year deal. Giving Pogba a start in this game could go a long way to showing him that his future should lie with United.
* Nani (right-winger): A key player in the United squad when fit and in-form. He was dreadful last week in Amsterdam but that is precisely why he needs to be given as many games as possible right now. With Antonio Valencia out for the next month or so, United need the Portuguese winger to shake off the rust and find his influential form. United are reliant on creativity from the flanks and Nani is a player that often allows United's attack to rise to higher level.
* Ashley Young (left-winger): After a tremendous start to his United career at season's beginning, the England international has been hindered by injury and poor form since. With Valencia's injury, Young has an opportunity to once again establish himself as first-choice on the flanks. Park Ji-sung provides tactical awareness, good link-up play, and the ability to finish in big games. However, he's not a player that often creates goalscoring chances for others. Thus, it is important right now that either Nani or Young rise to the occasion and provide this incisiveness while Valencia is out.
* Javier Hernandez (striker): Chicharito is another that Fergie has indicated to be involved in this match. The Mexican international does well to sit on the shoulder of a center-back and from here, his intelligent movement and electric pace allows him to peel off and work the channels. This also has the added benefit of often dragging a marker out of position and thus opening up channels for other attackers. Chicharito was first-choice for last season's run-in but Danny Welbeck has been the preferred choice as of late to partner talisman Wayne Rooney.
* Dimitar Berbatov (striker): The Bulgarian was left behind last week in England due to an apparent knock but if healthy -- and if he's in Fergie's good graces -- he's a good choice to partner Chicharito. Berbatov likes to drop deep and involve himself as he links the midfield and attack. From here -- while Chicharito stretches the defense vertically -- he is able to supply through balls for his pacy partner into the channels. Berbatov also has the natural tendency to drift left at times and this could help him be interchangeable with Young when the winger cuts inside from off the left touchline.
There are obvious risks with this starting XI: rustiness, relative inexperience, and the possibility of being too open in the back in this 4-4-2 shape versus Ajax's 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. To the latter point, United's midfield could be overrun and a too big of a gap could be left in behind a Cleverley/Pogba midfield. However, the possible rewards outweigh the risks in my opinion. Hopefully this can be a game that ignites the form of the multiple players either returning from injury or for those who have been on the fringe of the squad this season. It's also a talented enough XI that could effectively end this tie with goals in the 1st half. Furthermore, a strong bench is available if the likes of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Park, or Welbeck need to be called upon for a rescue mission.