United begin their Europa League campaign this Thursday with a visit to Amsterdam to face a giant piece of European football history, Ajax. A glamorous fixture such as this was the perfect antidote after crashing out of the Champions League, although it is most definitely not an ample replacement.
Although SAF has never faced Ajax in a competitive fixture, we have had relations with the Dutch club over recent years having taken part in the pre-season Amsterdam tournament on four occasions. Ajax also held Edwin Van Der Sar’s testimonial last year after the classy keeper hung his gloves up.
The fixture itself is seen by most fans as a platform to spring our youth into competitive football rather than a competition in which we should place significance on. SAF might see it differently, seeing as he has never had the chance to win the Europa League but with the league hotting up with every passing week, United are likely to field at least a few youngsters.
The player I am most keen to see a chance given to is Paul Pogba. The 18-year-old French midfielder has had limited opportunities to impress this season with the Carling Cup his best chance at game time but an impressive Premier League debut against Stoke at the end of January bodes well for Pogba. Heavy speculation surrounds Pogba and whether he will sign a new contract at United as he is itching to get first team football.
Granting him game time in a European fixture might be the tonic he needs to get the hunger to play for United. There is a squad place waiting for a creative midfielder to grab, so if Paul gets minutes against Ajax he has to be sure to grab it with both hands.
Tom Cleverley will most likely make his return from injury in the fixture as well. Great news. Cleverley and Anderson were the spark behind United’s blistering start to the season and up until the prominence of Scholes and Carrick bringing a consistency to the midfield in recent weeks, we have simply struggled in the middle of the park.
Is Tom the replacement for Scholes that we all crave him to be? No. Scholes is irreplaceable. What Tom is, however, is United’s hottest prospect to bring through the talent into the first team squad this, and next, season. I have said on countless occasions that I believe our best midfield pairing in the squad is Cleverley and Carrick, so we may well see that for the first time this season on Thursday.
As for Ajax, Eriksen is the man that both teams will be eager to see. The 19-year-old is one of Europe’s most coveted talents and SAF has been reportedly sniffing at the heels of the diminutive midfielder. Will United buy this summer? I think it is surely inevitable in the next window seeing as Scholes had to come out of retirement to cover gaps that appeared in the squad. The youngster would fit the bill of the type of player I think we need – someone to sit in the hole and feed Rooney/Welbeck/Hernandez with opportunities to score.
I watched him playing for Denmark in the U21 Championships last summer and was impressed by how mature his game already seemed at just 19 and he has gone from strength to strength this year playing for Ajax. If he is for sale in the summer, it won’t be for cheap as he will spark a lot of interest from the major clubs, so United will have to open the cheque book if they are genuinely interested in buying the youngster.
With an away fixture at Norwich on Sunday, United have the luxury of not having a major fixture only a few days later, so we may see a stronger side go out to play Ajax. Rumours are circulating that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will make their returns from injury to further strengthen an ever-improving United squad, so fingers crossed we will get see the England pair back and galloping in red.
A starting berth for Berbatov will be the most likely choice for a fixture like this. The Bulgarian is surely coming to the end of his United career this season as his chances have been even more limited due to the rise of Danny Welbeck. It is a shame his United career turned out like it did but he just never complimented Rooney enough for a solid partnership to form. I’d like to think that Ezekiel Fryers might get a start at LB to give Evra a bit of a rest after the emotional trainwreck that was the Liverpool game.
Prediction? European away fixtures are always hard to decipher ahead of the first whistle but with United’s fantastic record away from home in Europe, I think the onus will be on us to bring the game to Ajax. For me, the game will be a tit-for-tat affair that will end in a score draw. Neither team will be going all out for the win, so I think we are set for a slow-paced game. Berbatov to score for United either way.