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Manchester United 1-2 Ajax (Agg: 3-2): Hosts progress to Round of 16 despite defeat after Chicharito opener
Red Devils progress to the last 16 of the Europa League with Atheltic Bilbao up next, despite seeing the Eredivisie side snatch victory and set up a nervy ending at Old Trafford
By Ryan Benson
Ajax often had long periods of pressure and possession, but it was the hosts who took the lead, with Javier Hernandez producing a calm finish to open the scoring.
Aras Ozbiliz equalised for the Dutch side with a well taken half-volley and Toby Alderweireld scored the late winner with the match coming to a close, although the hosts managed to hold on.
Sir Alex Ferguson made four changes from the side that won in Amsterdam a week ago, with Rafael da Silva and Chris Smalling coming in for Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, while in midfield, Park Ji-Sung replaced Michael Carrick in the centre.
Up front, Dimitar Berbatov replaced the ill Wayne Rooney as the Bulgarian started alongside Hernandez, with Danny Welbeck providing cover from the bench.
The visitors played a very similar team to the one that lost last week. Ricardo van Rhijn came into the side for Ismael Aissatti, while Nicolas Lodeiro started as part of the front three with Dmitry Bulykin missing out through injury.
After an energetic start from both sides, the hosts took the lead after just five minutes as Berbatov slipped through an impressive forward pass which Hernandez controlled, before skipping past the attentions of Alderweireld and finding the back of the net with confidence.
The two sides continued to knock the ball around comfortably, but every time United advanced they looked like scoring, and Hernandez very nearly returned the favour to Berbatov with 13 minutes played.
Fabio da Silva surged forward through the middle before playing an excellent pass through to Hernandez, and despite being pushed out wider than he would have liked, the Mexican slid the ball towards the far post with his Bulgarian strike-partner arriving late, but Jan Vertonghen stretched and conceded a corner.
However, Ajax were proving they weren’t just there to make up the numbers as they looked to grab a lifeline. Ozbiliz acquired possession in the United area after good work from van Rhijn and tricked his way past two defenders before shooting, but David de Gea was equal to the Armenian’s effort.
By now United were showcasing some increasingly sloppy passing, inviting pressure on to themselves, with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Lodeiro and Ozbiliz looking very dangerous for the visitors.
Following a period of Ajax pressure, the hosts went close to doubling their lead on the night. Nani played a clever disguised pass down the left channel into the penalty area for Berbatov, but the striker’s ball into the goalmouth was deflected ever so slightly out of the path of Hernandez, and Ajax soon made them pay.
The United defence failed to clear their lines properly after breaking down an attack and the ball fell kindly to Ozbiliz on the edge of the area, with the right-winger lashing a low, left-footed half-volley into De Gea’s bottom right corner.
Although Ferguson’s team ended the half with some considerable dominance over their visitors, Ajax held on to the 1-1 score at half-time after a battling 45 minutes.
The start of the second period followed a similar pattern to the first, with both sides committing plenty of players forward, but it was Ajax who continued to look the more dangerous.
First, Lodeiro went close, blasting an effort over from the centre of the penalty area following a cut-back from Eriksen, then moments later Siem De Jong’s header from a corner was denied by a brilliant save from De Gea.
Without creating an awful lot, Ajax continued to see more of the possession, troubling United with their quick passing and impressive movement, but two substitutions from Ferguson saw the hosts calm the contest down a little.
Jonny Evans took to the field in place of Tom Cleverley, while Paul Scholes replaced Ashley Young, and the midfielder’s impact was immediate as he spread the ball around as well as ever.
Minutes later, Nani was inches from getting his name on the scoresheet as the Portuguese winger cut inside from the right and let rip a thunderous effort with his left-foot, but the shot crashed off the crossbar and went behind.
With just over quarter-of-an-hour to go the hosts had another chance to put the tie beyond all doubt. Danny Welbeck, who replaced Berbatov, stormed down the left after a clever interchange with Park, but when he approached the goal, his attempted pass into the danger area was intercepted and United had to settle for a corner.
The visitors ensured the final moments would be nervy for United with Alderweireld finding the net following a free-kick conceded by Scholes, but they held on to progress, despite making the match a lot harder than they should have.
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