"Thursday nights, channel 5!" Those are the mocking chants of Manchester United's foes and the same self-deprecating and sarcastic roars bellowed out by our own supporters because of the club's involvement in Europe's junior competition -- the Europa League. Nonetheless, these are two of the world's most storied clubs as they have won 7 European Cups between them. Because of this, it is shocking that the only two encounters between the two clubs occurred during the 1976-77 season. Over a two-legged first-round UEFA Cup tie, Ajax left Amsterdam with a 1-0 lead but lost 2-1 on aggregate after United won 2-0 at Old Trafford. It may not be the most grand of stages, but the Europa League provides an opportunity for two proud European clubs to engage in a rare battle.
Form Guide: United come into this tie sitting 2nd in the Premier League table -- two points off the pace of leaders Manchester City. United parachuted down to the Europa League's round of 32 knockout stage after finishing 3rd in Group C of this season's UEFA Champions League. The club has not competed in Europe outside the Champions League since 1995. The Red Devils come into the match in good form as they have only lost once in their past seven matches -- a span that includes the time since Paul Scholes' return from retirement. United's most recent match was a 2-1 league defeat of rival Liverpool FC at the past weekend.
Team News: Injuries have been a hindrance to the squad for most of the season but the situation is trending towards the positive. Tom Cleverley, Nani, Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling have all recovered from their recent injuries as they have traveled with the squad to Amsterdam. However, Darren Fletcher and captain Nemanja Vidic are still ruled out for the season while Anders Lindegaard, Anderson, and Michael Owen are all still out with short-term injuries. Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, and Patrice Evra have been left behind in Manchester. (United's 20-man traveling squad for Amsterdam)
Form Guide: Off the pitch, Ajax are a club in turmoil as a recent power struggle between Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal has resulted in their board being disbanded. On the pitch, things aren't much better. The Dutch champions currently sit 6th in the Eredivisie table and 8 points shy of a Champions League spot. Just as United, Ajax parachuted down to the Europa League after finishing 3rd in Group D of the Champions League. However, their descent was arguably much harsher. On Matchday 6, Olympique Lyon scored a shocking 7 goals in the last 45+ minutes of their match with Dinamo Zagreb to overtake Ajax on a tiebreaker for 2nd place in the group -- this qualified Lyon for the Champions League knockout stages. During the past weekend, Ajax defeated NAC Breda 2-0 -- their only victory since the new year in all competitions.
Team News: Midfielder Theo Janssen missed his side's most recent match and it appears that he is out for this one as well. Right-back Gregory van der Wiel is apparently a doubt as is defender Andre Ooijer. Midfielder Eyong Enoh was substituted off at NAC Breda after sustaining a hamstring knock -- his status is uncertain.
United: Manager Sir Alex Ferguson is claiming that he will play his strongest team versus Ajax. However, leaving behind Giggs and Evra hints at looking ahead to the league title race as he likely is hoping to preserve the long-term fitness of each. Despite having no game at the upcoming weekend, Fergie might continue the trend with Rio Ferdinand -- who has a chronic back issue -- and with the 37-year-old Paul Scholes -- who has featured in every game since his return.
In goal, David de Gea has reestablished himself as United's No. 1 with recent strong performances. However, backup Ben Amos could be given a game. At center-back, if Ferdinand is rested, that leaves Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones in contention to start. Fabio is likely to deputise for Evra at left-back while any of Smalling, Jones, or Rafael could be selected at right-back.
In central-midfied, Scholes may be rested and this could provide an opportunity for Cleverley to get a game -- the promising midfielder has not featured since October due to injury. Michael Carrick is currently the midfield's foundation and is probable to start. Out wide, any of Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-sung, Nani, and Ashley Young could feature. The latter two are in need a game after recently returning from injury.
Up front, Wayne Rooney could be selected if Fergie prioritizes leaving Amsterdam with the lead -- and if all that occurs, then the United boss could rest Rooney next Thursday ahead of the league match versus Norwich City the following weekend. Danny Welbeck has been the first-choice to partner Rooney but Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) may be given the start.
Ajax: Kenneth Vermeer is the No. 1 and the first-choice center-back pairing is Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. If van der Wiel is out for this match, then Dico Koppers is likely to deputise at right-back. At left-back, the choice is between Vurnon Anita or Nicolai Boilesen.
Ajax manager Frank De Boer typically deploys his side in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shape. Enoh and Anita are possibilities as defensive-midfielders while Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen are candidates to play more advanced in a central-midfield role. In attack, Miralem Sulejmani is likely to be the fulcrum but Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Nicolas Lodeiro are possibilities as well. Out wide, any of Eriksen, Sulejmani, Lodeiro, Derk Boerrigter, and Lorenzo Ebecillo are possible.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Rather than provide only tactical keys, TBB will provide three general things to look out for instead in this match:
1. Christian Eriksen: The Danish playmaker is on the radar of Europe's biggest clubs because of his superb abilities. About a year ago, the 20-year-old was the standout player during an international friendly versus England. He is considered to be a 'number ten'. Here is what Fergie had to say about Eriksen this week:
"There's a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy. We'll see what he's like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that's the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players."
- Ferguson | Source: ManUtd.com
2. United's returning players: Nani, Jones, Cleverley, and Smalling are now recovered from injury and their return is certainly welcome. Each will likely play a vital role during the run-in so this match may provide an opportunity to help them regain fitness and form. Keying an eye on these players may provide indication on how ready these players are to contribute in the title-race. This game may also provide a chance for the likes of Young, Fabio, and Chichartio to make their case to be first-choice.
3. Ajax's approach?: Will the Dutch side sit back by defending deep, look to keep it close, and then try to nick the tie next week at Old Trafford? This could be a reasonable approach if Ajax anticipate United to play a stronger side this week as opposed to next week when United have to plan for a tough league match at the following weekend. Or will Ajax look to control the match by playing open and possession-based football? -- this is something that suits their squad's personnel and their club's ideology. Would they compliment this possible latter approach by pressing United high up the pitch? It's been since the FA Cup match versus City in early January that a side came out to play versus United.
KO: 6:00pm GMT, 1:00pm EST | Amsterdam ArenA
TV: Channel 5 (U.K.), DIRECT TV (USA), GolTV (delay in the USA | 5:00pm EST)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
Odds: Ajax 7/2, Draw 13/5, Manchester United 8/11
TBB prediction: Ajax 1-3 Manchester United