How strange it was to watch Manchester United play on a Thursday night in a European game. As the players lined up, they heard the anthem of the Europa League which was uncharted territory for anyone with an United affiliation. I must say that some of the players looked dumbfounded at listening to an anthem that wasn’t as stirring as they are used to in the Champions League. If United’s ambition of progressing further in this competition is true, then the players got to get used to listening to the anthem.
The last time I remember United taking part in the Europa League in its former guise as the UEFA Cup, I could only recall it for a headed goal by the Big Dane Peter Schmeichel which wasn’t enough as we were bundled out by the Russian side Rotor Volgograd. Therefore this new experience was certainly interesting and unusual; it was helped by the fact that we were facing such illustrious opponents in Ajax Amsterdam and I thank the luck of the draw for that. With all due respect, had we played a lesser known team, the chances of complacency creeping in through team selection and/or collective performance was high. After all, complacency was the number 1 reason why we got knocked out of the Champions League in the first place.
It has been days since the game in the Dutch capital so the events of the match and the score have been well-publicised and well-known everywhere. Overall, I felt that we were flat and cautious in the first half but much better and assertive in the second half. It was a deserved win and the result and performance was as good as any I have seen from United this season in Europe. Sir Alex Ferguson and some players might not agree that it was their best performance but in view of what we have seen in the Champions League, this performance was better than the rest. Already talk in the media has shifted to an all-Manchester, all-English final. I feel it’s premature and disrespectful to speak of such things with other strong teams still in the competition. In terms of individual performances, it is heartening to see David De Gea playing with increased confidence and getting better as the games go by. An interesting fact would be that the Spaniard has already got a winner’s medal in this competition something none of his team-mates have.
One big worry and terribly sad news was the injury to our flying winger Antonio Valencia, voted fairly and very rightly, the Player of the Month for the month of January by Manchester United fans. He picked up a hamstring injury and such injuries as experienced in the past with Ryan Giggs’ hamstring injuries, are not as straight forward as other injuries. It has to be treated with great care so as not to aggravate it any further and avoid rushing the player back so as not to lengthen his time on the treatment table. In a way, his injury is not that badly timed but after watching the performance of Nani and Ashley Young against Ajax, I would rather have a fit Valencia than any of those two. They got to recover the form they showed in the early parts of the season and do it fast now that Valencia is out so the initiative and the onus is on them to deliver. At such a crucial juncture of the season, there is no time to be patient and for form to be re-discovered on its own letting time take its due course.
The Ecuadorian brings power and pace into the game. His direct running torment defenders and his deliveries are most often than not, spot on. Nani, brings a box of tricks, pace, assists and provides a goal threat from outside the area. He wasn’t in poor form when he got injured against Arsenal but showed rustiness in his play against Ajax. What else he brought against Ajax was the frustration of his play that we still get to see sometimes. Young, on the other hand, had been on a downward spiral in form when he got injured against Fulham. He scored a good goal as he deliberated to pick his spot and put the ball through the legs of the goalkeeper and into the net despite the presence of three Ajax defenders on the line. The Englishman’s style of shifting to the more dominant right foot to cross or shoot has become well-read by opposition defenders now. His confidence has also taken a bit of a knock after a strong start to life as a United player. We can only hope he recovers his confidence and gets better as the games go by as well as learning new tricks to survive playing as an unorthodox left winger. Perhaps a tactical switch to the right could be a solution. The ambidextrous Nani could play on the left as he is as comfortable on his left as he is with his right foot.
I suggest that United consider bringing in a witch doctor to ward off the evil spirits or some spell cast at the squad judging from the number of injuries we have had this season and not being able to stay completely injury-free. The duration of the injuries we have got to some of the players have also been pretty long-term. We just got to keep our fingers crossed that none of our key members of the squad is sidelined for a long period and those that are injured namely a certain Mr. Valencia makes a speedy recovery (pun intended).