United young guns survive Ajax fright
Manchester Utd 1, Ajax 2, (Man Utd win 3-2 on agg)
DIFFERENT competition, same old story. Two months after tumbling out of the Champions League, Manchester United's European failings almost led to another exit as Ajax took them to the brink of Europa League elimination at Old Trafford last night.
Coasting with a 3-0 aggregate lead inside six minutes, United were forced to hang on in the dying stages after an Ajax fightback had taken the Dutch champions to within a goal of qualification.
Having been European masters not so long ago, with three Champions League finals in four seasons, United are now enduring their growing pains in UEFA's second tier.
Ultimately, last week's 2-0 victory in Amsterdam took United through, but the prospect of an all-Manchester final in Bucharest in May is reliant on Alex Ferguson's team remembering how to win in Europe.
For all of Ferguson's pre-match insistence in his programme notes that United would not be treating the Europa League with "disdain" and buying into its cruel billing as the 'Losers Cup', there was an inescapable sense that Old Trafford was tasting a wholly different experience to the Champions League.
Last Thursday's 2-0 victory in Amsterdam had ensured that United already had one foot in the last 16, but Ajax, one of European football's great dynasties, are not the force of old, so there was an absence of fear and crackling tension in the ground as Ferguson's team set about the formality of securing a tie against Athletic Bilbao in the next round.
The pressure was off, Edwin van der Sar was welcomed in the directors' box as a returning hero and Ferguson's young team -- whose average age was 23.8 years -- were able to play with the carefree abandon that marked their early-season performances.
It all felt too comfortable but Ferguson, happy to use this competition as a source of European experience for his emerging stars, will be the first to accept that learning in the backwaters can only take a player so far.
A last-16 tie against Bilbao at the raucous Estadio San Mames on March 15 will raise the bar, but nobody at United will be kidding themselves that it will be a challenge comparable to recent excursions to the San Siro, Stade Velodrome or Allianz Arena.
Still, United's victory in the Amsterdam Arena had been earned by their ability to take advantage of Ajax's lack of attacking threat, so they had created their own comfort zone.
And their breathing space was increased within six minutes of the second leg when Javier Hernandez claimed his fourth goal in four games to put United 3-0 ahead on aggregate.
The goal had been sparked by Ji-sung Park intercepting a loose pass in midfield and laying the ball off to Dimitar Berbatov, whose pass found Hernandez 30 yards from goal.
Having turned Ajax defender Toby Alderweireld, Hernandez broke into the penalty area before beating goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer from 12 yards.
With the energetic Tom Cleverley injecting pace and creativity to United's midfield, Ajax were forced to repel heavy pressure before gaining a foothold in the game.
And the Dutch champions were rewarded for their persistence on 37 minutes when Aras Ozbiliz made it 1-1 on the night with a left-foot strike from 20 yards following a botched clearance by Phil Jones.
Cleverley went close to restoring United's lead three minutes before half-time, however, when his long-range shot was palmed away by Vermeer.
With Ajax starting brightly in the second half, driven on by captain Jan Vertonghen and the adventurous full-back Ricardo van Rhijn, the lack of experience within the United ranks began to tell.
Park, captain in the absence of Patrice Evra, was a man alone as he attempted to stem the flow of Ajax attacks while his younger, less defensively-minded colleagues left the Korean to protect the back four on his own.
The alarm bells were beginning to ring and, with David de Gea forced to tip Siem de Jong's header over the crossbar on 57 minutes, Ferguson chose to act, by withdrawing Cleverley and Ashley Young in favour of Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans.
The switch enabled Jones to bolster midfield alongside Scholes and tighten a screw which had been loosened by the wanderings of Cleverley and Young.
As promising as he may be, Cleverley's game still lacks the defensive discipline required to excel at the top level and Ajax highlighted his deficiencies in front of the watching England caretaker-manager, Stuart Pearce.
Ajax set home nerves jangling four minutes from time when Ozbiliz dropped a free-kick on to the head of Alderweireld, who powered the ball home from close range.
Another for the visitors would have sent them through on away goals. Thankfully for a red-faced United, they did not manage it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)