Friday, February 17, 2012

One Bridge Crossed: Manchester United 2 - Ajax 0

photo by Jos van Zettenvia PhotoRee

Sir Alex and the boys traveled to the city of bridges, Amsterdam, for a Thursday night Europa League clash against Ajax FC. While not the Champions League by any stretch of the imagination, at least the thought of playing a world famous European opponent gave United fans some small sense of satisfaction -- and the thought of heading to a city full of hashish dens and red light sex shops probably didn't hurt the attraction for the traveling fans, either.

Regardless, the most exciting news coming out of the United camp pre-game was the midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and the returning Tom Cleverley. Injured since November, Cleverley has in his absence become a savior of sorts, the answer for whatever ails the club -- in fact, United's lack of advancement into the Champions League knockout stages would clearly have been different "if only Cleverley had been available," or something like that. Off to see if the reality would come even close to living up to the hype, farlieonfootie's crack team of reporters invaded Amsterdam to turn in this report:

It's a new anthem and unfamiliar teams in the pre-game highlights, but the packed stands full of 50,000 enthusiastic home supporters seem to care little, as they experience the joy of a mid-week European clash -- Manchester United's first such match outside of the Champions League since 1995.

The contest began cagily enough, both clubs longstanding veterans of the conservative approach required to succeed in pan-European football.  As the clock ticked toward 15 minutes, though, the game began to open up ever so slightly, with the home side seemingly the primary beneficiary of the increasing amounts of open space showing on the green grass of the Amsterdam Arena pitch.

Both teams battled for supremacy in the middle third, and the lack of substantive penetration of the final third on either end was primarily due to the teams' conservative opening gambits rather than a lack of accurate passing or strategic indecision.

Javier Hernandez gave the hosts something to think about as he was slipped behind the Dutch defense, but Ajax 'keeper Kenneth Vermeer was alert to the danger and responded well by smothering the ball before the Mexican could inflict any further damage. For their part, Ajax seemed content holding the ball, as if possession alone could guarantee them a result, while lacking the true cut and thrust shown by United, even if the end result was the same. The hosts did finally call on United 'keeper David De Gea as the clock hit the half hour mark, although the embattled Spaniard's full stretch more than covered the open net behind him.

The vaunted Cleverley effect was little noticed by the interval, which ended on a small note of controversy as Ajax pleaded for a non-existent foul just outside of the box.  That their pleas were correctly waved off by Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi was confirmed by television video evidence as the two teams trotted off the pitch.

A track meet broke out to begin the second half, as if the coaches' halftime instructions included a change to the two teams' pay structure, with new compensation measured in terms of a taxi cab, payable according to the number of miles traveled. The feeling of a goal grew near, with United laying siege to the hosts' goalmouth, but it wasn't until Ashley Young poked home a misdirected cross near the hour mark that the seal was finally broken and the visitors took a deserved 1-nil lead.

The United defense appeared firm on the evening, with the occasional flimsiness seen in other games this season apparently left behind on the tarmac in Manchester. While Ajax midfielder Cristian Eriksen offered some additional insight into the whispers surrounding United's desire to ink his signature this summer, the young Dane's final product -- while hard and direct -- created only the slightest of problems for De Gea.

Meanwhile, the introduction of Antonio Valencia for the evening's sole goal scorer resumed normal service for the English Champions, the Ecuadorian's hustle and drive sending a through ball to Chicharito and Wayne Rooney before coming back again, with the Mexican all but printing the tickets for United's advancement into the Tournament's round of 16 with his 85th minute goal. The postgame news of Valencia's hamstring pull on the play which sealed the deal, however, cast a sizeable pall on the Red's otherwise glorious evening abroad.

Although De Gea was called into action one last time before the referee blew his whistle, and the tie not over and done just quite yet, United were right to feel quite comfortable it was mission accomplished on their Thursday night visit to Amsterdam.  At full time, it was Manchester United 2 - Ajax 0, with the tie now reverting to Old Trafford for a second leg match on February 23.

This is farlieonfootie for February 17.

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