The team lines up before kick-off. Photo: Michael Regan (Getty Images)
Cleverley made his first start for United against Ajax tonight for the first time since his injury at the Reebok in October.
After he received the call from Stuart Pearce into the England Senior squad, Cleverley would have been keen to impress on the night to show just why he was given the nod. With a midfield partner of Park, the pressure was on Cleverley to be the pillar in the midfield that both dictated and controlled the play, as Carrick was finally given a rest after a long stint without a break.
The initial setup saw Cleverley play as the more advanced of the midfield pairing and it was hardly unsurprising. Park plays centrally in the same fashion as he does across the pitch, biting at the heels of opponents with his unrelenting energy and tracking back, leaving Cleverley in the more central position to allow him to bring the play forward.
With an early goal from Chicharito after some nice central play, it gave United the breathing space on the night to simply control the game. The first glimpses of Cleverley brought nothing spectacular with simple possession play bringing calm to the team. On the 15 minute mark, Tom showed the characteristics of his all-round game after he won the ball back, played a neat one-two with Rafael before darting into space and bringing the ball back into the middle. A lovely bit of play.
As the game reached the 30 minute mark, Cleverley hadn’t found himself involved in the game much more. Ajax started to play their part in the fixture and United began playing the ball further wide toward Young and Nani. The game was passing him by and he needed to try and stamp more authority and demand the ball.
It was clear to see that both Cleverley and Park were far from match sharp but the goal from Ajax spurred life into United. A great effort from Cleverley at the 40 minute mark was parried out by Vermeer nearly into the path of Berbatov as he showed signs of coming into the game. United continued to improve and so did Tom, with his best pass of the game coming with a pinpoint ball over the top to Berbatov.
The second half didn’t start well for Cleverley as he misplaced passes to both Berbatov and Nani. Sloppy passing isn’t something that Tom normally does, so it is obvious that he is far from 100% match fit as it stands. Ajax then began to dictate the match and United struggled to get any possession at all.
Cleverley and Park were simply being outplayed in the middle of the park and it was a matter of time before we saw Scholes or Giggs coming on and in the 60th minute, Cleverley made well for Scholes.
All in all, it was an anonymous performance from Cleverley. Considering how fantastic he was when he played in the first leg, I was a bit disappointed really. I do, however, think that has something to do with the fact that Carrick wasn’t on the pitch. When Tom is fully match fit and is partnered by Carrick, I strongly believe we will see the best of both players.
Unfortunately for Tom, tonight was one of his worst performances as he got played out of the game and didn’t impact it enough when he had the opportunities. Here’s to hoping that he can play alongside Carrick on Sunday.