Europa League - United survive Ajax fightback to advance
Ajax came back from a goal down to defeat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford, but the Premier League club advance to the Europa League last 16 with a 3-2 aggregate win.
United appeared to be on the fast track to the next round when Javier Hernandez put them ahead on the night after just six minutes, extending their total advantage to three goals following their 2-0 victory at the Amsterdam ArenA last week.
But Aras Ozbiliz pulled one back shortly before the interval and when Toby Alderweireld headed home a free-kick three minutes from time, the home side faced a nervy finish to avoid conceding a third and going out on away goals.
But they were able to hold on and will now take on Athletic Bilbao of the Spanish Primera Liga in the last 16 for a place in the quarter-finals.
Athletic defeated Lokomotiv Moscow 1-0, scoring just two minutes after being reduced to 10 men, to earn the fight to face the Red Devils on the away goals rule.
United looked to add a third goal to their aggregate advantage right from the off, beginning with purpose in the hope of breaking their Dutch opponents’ spirits early on.
Park Ji-Sung forced a good parry from goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer inside the opening moments before the opening goal came after just six minutes.
Dimitar Berbatov provided the assist for his strike partner, with Hernandez cutting inside and coolly stroking home a goal most imagined would kill off the Ajax threat.
Frank de Boer’s young side were far from beaten, however, and began to settle into the game with Christian Eriksen and Siem de Jong firing shots wide of the target.
The hosts countered a quarter of an hour in and only a sliding interception from Jan Vertonghen prevented Hernandez from returning the favour for Berbatov inside the area.
The away side continued to have their fair share of possession and a number of forays into United’s final third, and eight minutes before the break their efforts were rewarded.
The Premier League side failed to clear their lines as Ajax pressed and, amid shouts for a foul, a loose ball fell to Ozbiliz on the edge of the area and the Armenian buried his first-time effort low into the far corner.
Tom Cleverley tested Vermeer with a rasping drive from 25 yards in the closing stages of the half, while left-back Dico Koppers sustained a knock which saw him replaced at half-time by Davy Klaassen.
The enforced change did little to dampen the visitors’ collective spirit, however, as they began to take over the game in search of the two goals they needed, urged on loudly by their impressive travelling support.
And when a lengthy period of attacking from the Dutch culminated in De Jong forcing a superlative reflex block from David De Gea with a near-post header from a corner, there appeared to be an outside chance they could pull it off.
However, Sir Alex Ferguson quickly moved defend his side’s lead by bringing off the ineffectual Cleverley and Ashley Young in favour of Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans.
Having Scholes anchor the midfield alongside the defensive-minded Phil Jones slowly paid off for the home side, as the game slowed down and United began to create openings on the break in the hopes of finishing off Ajax for good.
And on 73 minutes, Nani cut inside from the right on one of those breakaways before unleashing a 20-yard screamer which thumped off the crossbar.
Berbatov made way for Danny Welbeck, who came close to creating an opening on the counter-attack on a number of occasions, but a lapse in concentration at the back ensured a tense finale.
Scholes needlessly gave away a free-kick led to Ozbiliz pumping a long central delivery into the United goalmouth, and as a result, claiming an assist as well as a goal when Alderweireld shook off his marker to head past De Gea.
It was a goal which ensured Ajax’s status as the only Dutch side to emerge victorious from the Theatre of Dreams, but it was one short of what they required to make it through at United’s expense.