Tuesday 17 October 2017

Hernandez adds icing to United’s cake walk as Ajax wilt under second-half pressure

Ajax 0 Manchester Utd 2
Europa League Rd of 32, 1st leg

Ashley Young celebrates giving Manchester United the lead in the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 clash with Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena last night
Ashley Young celebrates giving Manchester United the lead in the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 clash with Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena last night

Ian Herbert

It was Steven Gerrard who once described this tournament as "nothing special, an ugly kid brother compared to the handsome Champions League" -- and that was in the year Liverpool won it.

But last night Manchester United certainly looked like a side who have come to terms with the Thursday shift as they made a significant stride towards the next staging post on the long Europa League trek.

Their display here was not exactly lustrous and you imagined that it had required a fairly colourful half-time contribution by Alex Ferguson, judging by the way the tempo they subsequently found for what was the manager's first win in this tournament as United manager.

Against an Ajax side whose decline from their glory days has been vertiginous, to judge by their performance, United's battle appeared to be with themselves rather than with their opponents. But eventually they found the desire, and prevailed.

The strains of 'Zadok the Priest' have faded away for United, replaced now by a Europa League anthem which has no words. Its French composer says it "captures the event's explosive energy" -- which suggests he has not quite grasped the real cultural significance of Thursday nights.

The vast stadium had trappings befitting two of the continent's great conquistadors, though, and as the pale evening sunlight spread across the city, this diminished status seemed to carry its compensations. "Thursday night in Amsterdam," went up the more home-made anthem.

Ferguson had promised his best endeavours -- "There's a final in Romania, and we want to be there," he said on Wednesday night -- and his team selection suggested that he meant it.

Tom Cleverley started for the first time since limping off with an ankle injury at Everton on October 29, and Nani was restored from the foot ligament damage sustained at Arsenal. 'Welcome Fergie Kids' read the headline in the match programme but, from a Dutch perspective, that appeared to be wishful thinking.

United's first half was certainly more purposeful than anything that grim Champions League campaign had provided, even though it seemed that Nani's crossing facility had been scrambled. The composed left-back Dico Koppers comfortably won that particular battle and at one point Javier Hernandez was flapping his hands in frustration at the lack of service. "Look, play the ball back," Wayne Rooney mouthed as Nani put another spoke in the wheel.

It was Rooney who hinted that he might plot a route through a determined and defensively organised Ajax for his Mexican partner. Wheeling around in midfield, a pass with his right outstep almost had Hernandez through, but Kenneth Vermeer raced out quickly.

But Ajax soon grew into the game in a way that suggested that the road to Bucharest will not be easy. It was hardly the type of football embodied by Johan Cruyff -- who, judging by the banners on show, does not appear to be blamed for dragging the club into civil war -- but there were still too many threats for United's comfort.

Koppers seized on a sloppy pass out of defence from Jonny Evans and raced towards goal, but was seized by a lack of belief and shot early, instead of crossing. It required far better awareness from Evans to head clear the first of several dangerous crosses from the Ajax left, with the imposing Russian striker Dmitri Bulykin lurking with menace.

David de Gea then came to the fore, diving to glove away a powerful 30-yard shot from Siem de Jong, as the Dutch champions began to show more self-belief.

De Jong was a threat from closer quarters, too. He could not connect on the first of several crosses from the Serbian winger Miralem Sulejmani, who possessed the accuracy from the flanks which United lacked, but did meet a second, sending it narrowly over the bar.

The source of the pre-match clamour, Christian Eriksen, was quiet until he forced De Gea into a stop with a speculative effort from 30 yards, but the first half's most controversial moment was its last.

Rio Ferdinand, commanding until then, was a fraction slow as he attempted to get to a ball that Sulejmani shaped to take into the area. The winger was bundled over and it looked like United's good fortune from all angles when the referee pointed down the tunnel rather than at the penalty spot.

Ferguson was clearly less than impressed, because the second half began with an unmistakably greater sense of urgency.

Nani almost compensated immediately for his misdemeanours when he clipped a shot which Vermeer touched deftly over the bar, and Young immediately floated a ball from the opposite flank which Phil Jones could not make a connection with.

This new-found decisiveness gave the goal an air of inevitability when it came, on 59 minutes.

Central defender Jan Vertonghen blasted a clearance straight at Rooney and while the striker squatted on the pitch, badly winded, Nani collected the loose ball, took it to the byline and drilled a low cross which was deflected into the path of the unattended Young. The former Aston Villa winger drilled his fourth goal of the season through Vermeer's legs to send United ahead.

Ferguson's lack of emotion suggested that he felt his side should have looked like they meant business a little earlier in the evening.

However, just five minutes from time, though, the impressive Valencia broke clear and after he was tackled, Hernandez picked up the ball, laid it off to Rooney and scored with the return pass. (© Independent News Service)

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