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United 1 Ajax 2: Dutch Champs Beaten As United Scrap Through

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It was meant to be easy. It wasn’t meant to be a difficult night for United but lo and behold Ajax ripped up the form-book to go within a whisker of picking up a famous victory on a deeply frustrating night at Old Trafford.

With Wayne Rooney sitting at home with a throat infection, Dimitar Berbatov was partnering Javier Hernandez. The partnership clicked within six minutes, as shortly after Nani tested Kenneth Vermeer in goal United went ahead getting what would turn out to be a vital goal on the night.

Park Ji-Sung captaining United against a club he enjoyed success against whilst playing in Holland for PSV Eindhoven, picked up on a loose ball in midfield, playing the ball to Berbatov whose 20-yard pass picked out Hernandez who turned inside his marker before stroking the ball past Vermeer.

Hernandez tried to repay the favour for Berbatov on 20 minutes but the Mexican’s cross was cut out brilliantly by Ajax’s captain Jan Vertonghen just as the Bulgarian was about to lash the ball home, as United looked in complete-control early on.

The highly-rated Chistian Eriksen then played in Miralem Sulejmani to blaze over as the visitors began to grow into the game, feeding of the confidence of their vocal supporters who even with their team facing a three-goal deficit were intent on enjoying themselves.

On the stroke of the half-hour a glorious chance was wasted to double the lead when Berbatov after being picked out by Nani decided to tee the ball up for Hernandez to tap home instead of going for goal himself, allowing Toby Alderweireld to get back and clear the ball.

It was a ruthless chance to end Ajax’s challenge which was wasted and Berbatov was made to pay eight minutes later when the scores were levelled when Araz Ozbiliz took advantage of a poor clearance from Phil Jones to rocket in a shot from just outside the box.

There was a hint of a handball in the build-up to the young forward’s goal when Nicolas Lodiero controlled the ball with his arm running into the area, but it was the break which Ajax for their adventurous play after conceding probably just about deserved.

Still though, United could have gone into half-time ahead but for a smart save by Vermeer to tip wide a curling effort from Tom Cleverley who is still waiting for his first goal in club colours, which would have arrived already this season but for time out on the sidelines.

Ajax came out after the break looking even more positive and De Boer’s changes to bring on midfielder Davy Klaassen for regular left-back Dico Koppers allowed the impressive Siem de Jong to sit anchor and run the game for the Dutch champions.

It was a nervy half for United who only looked briefly in control when Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans were introduced as for some strange reason they could not keep the ball as Vermeer failed to be forced into action after the break

Down at the other end David De Gea couldn’t afford to relax and produced an outstanding reaction save to tip over a de Jong header from a corner. It was a great save from the goalkeeper who has looked in tip-top form since his outstanding performance at Chelsea.

United were struggling on the counter-attack but could have sealed their passage through to the next round 17 minutes from time, but Nani after a wonderful individual run was unlucky to see his powerful drive clip the top of the bar with Vermeer well beaten.

Ajax’s vocal support could sense their side was on top and four minutes from time sensed their team could pull of a miraculous victory when Alderweireld headed home an Ozbiliz free-kick after Scholes had needlessly given away a foul. It was too little too late though as United just about held on.

Athletic Bilbao lie in wait in the next round and with the first fixture in that tie being at Old Trafford, United can ill-afford to have another slack European performance at home as it may mean that a difficult trip to the intimidating San Mamés stadium will made even tougher.

United: De Gea, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Fabio, Nani, Cleverley (Scholes), Park, Young (Evans), Hernandez, Berbatov (Welbeck).

Star Man

He might not have got the plaudits on the night that Ajax’s goalscorers did but the performance of Siem de Jong was one that might have made the top European clubs take notice of him. He was by far the best player in the second-half and could be a name to watch this summer at Euro 2012 if he is called back into Holland’s squad.

By Adam Dennehey @ADennehey87