By Chris Myson
The manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his players have all spoken out positively about the tournament, highlighting their determination to secure a continental trophy the Red Devils are yet to win in their illustrious history.
A 2-0 away win over Ajax in the first leg of their round of 32 tie means they look set to extend their run in Europe’s second-tier knockout competition for a while longer yet, and United have the players to reach the latter stages should they continue to treat the competition seriously.
Although a strong team was fielded in Amsterdam, there will inevitably be some changes in the second leg and future rounds if the Premier League champions progress.
Goal.com analyses which United players stand to gain most from the opportunities provided by involvement in the Europa League as the season enters its final months.
|DAVID DE GEA
David de Gea’s shaky start to his Old Trafford career had led to him losing the No.1 spot at the start of 2012 after a battle with Anders Lindegaard, but an injury to the Dane quickly saw him come back into the limelight.
The young Spaniard’s confidence seems to be growing slowly but surely as he continues to acclimatise to life in England, although there is still some way to go.
The Europa League is a competition De Gea has already won in his short career, as he was part of the Atletico Madrid team that beat Fulham in the final in 2010.
A more familiar continental style of football, without the hustle and bustle of Premier League penalty boxes, provides the goalkeeper with an opportunity to get some minutes, clean sheets and confidence under his belt ahead of the vital league title run-in.
By the time Lindegaard returns, a more settled De Gea could have the position between the sticks firmly under his control and his solid display in the first leg against Ajax was a positive step towards achieving that goal.
|FABIO DA SILVA
Patrice Evra was absent from the first leg against Ajax after suffering an ‘emotional week’ during the Luis Suarez handshake affair and the chances are the Frenchman may get more opportunities to put his feet up on a Thursday evening in the future rounds.
That will allow young Brazilian Fabio da Silva to continue his development, this time playing in his favoured position at left-back, something he does not often get due to Evra’s seniority and importance to the side.
The feisty full-back was impressive against Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena, particularly in the defensive side of his game as he won a number of important challenges and kept things simple with his distribution.
Fabio has already demonstrated his attacking qualities from the full-back areas and continuing his development in the Europa League will help United in both the short-term, with him being fully prepared to step into the league side when required, and further ahead in the future.
One of the reasons for Paul Scholes coming out of retirement was the injury problems being suffered in the centre of midfield, particularly to the man Old Trafford coaches hope will be the long-term replacement for the experienced maestro, Tom Cleverley.
After loan spells with Leicester, Watford and Wigan, a strong start to the season for United was abruptly ended by an ankle injury and the creative starlet only made his return to first-team action at the Amsterdam Arena last week.
As demonstrated in that 2-0 victory, the Europa League will provide Cleverley with an opportunity to get back to top-level match sharpness ahead of the Premier League title run-in.
It should also not be forgotten that the 22-year-old remains inexperienced and raw at continental level, so regular exposure to European action between now and the end of the year should assist his development as a player ahead of United’s return to the Champions League next season.
After Ashley Young’s explosive start to his Manchester United career, fans were thrilled with their £16 million summer addition from Aston Villa.
Following some top displays early in the campaign, most notably in the thumping 8-2 victory over Arsenal where he scored two stunning goals, the winger’s form tailed off slightly before he suffered what was a rare injury, having previously played almost every game for Villa during his time in the Midlands.
With a frustrating absence now over, the England international is determined to make an impact at his new club and the first leg in the Netherlands, which saw him score with a composed finish and produce a good performance on the left, was a clear statement of intent.
In-form Antonio Valencia’s injury is likely to accelerate Young’s return to the starting XI for the big matches, but with significant time to make up on at Old Trafford, he will be eager to continue where he left off for the remainder of the Europa League too.
Despite scoring 20 times in a brilliant first season for United, Javier Hernandez currently finds himself third in the strikers’ pecking order at Old Trafford - behind first-choice front pairing Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck.
The Mexican is very close to regaining the energetic and prolific top form we witnessed last year, as shown by his recent goals against Chelsea and in the first leg of the Red Devils’ Europa League tie with Ajax, after what had been a hit-and-miss start to this season.
Even if Rooney and Welbeck remain the first-choice pairing for the biggest matches, Chicharito still has a big role to play from the substitutes’ bench and when squad rotation takes place – he is the best and most natural finisher in United’s squad.
But Hernandez will want more than that and, having played a crucial role in last year’s title success, the 23-year-old will be desperate to add to his goals tally in this season’s Europa League.
That would make it impossible for Sir Alex Ferguson, who admits he is finding his team selections increasingly tough as players return to form and fitness, to ignore the striker for much longer.
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