It was a fightback befitting Ajax, a hero of the Trojan War hero who made his name before a football club appropriated it, and it served as a punishing reminder for Manchester United of why they are currently playing their European football on Thursday nights.
Their course for a final in Romania against Manchester City is intact but only after the kind of tortured display reminiscent of the home performances against Benfica and Basle which dumped them out of the Champions League in the first place. "Thursday nights is usually my pictures night," Ferguson had revealed before the game, when he described how the Europa League has altered his and Lady Cathy's cozy cinema routines. This alternative show, best observed from behind the sofa, is not a good substitute.
The manager's analysis late last night was that he had picked too inexperienced a defence. "I've got to accept the responsibility myself – playing so many young players in the back four position was a big ask," he said, pointing specifically to Chris Smalling's and Phil Jones' lack of experience "at pushing up and tightening up a game." This was very discouraging for Stuart Pearce – and the onlooking Harry Redknapp – since the two central pillars of that defence have just been picked for the England squad to face the Netherlands next week. Neither did Tom Cleverley or Ashley Young, also in the squad, impose themselves, and with Park Ji-sung left to hold back the Ajax tide, Ferguson eventually reached for the reassurance of Paul Scholes.
Ferguson's opposite number, Frank de Boer, agreed with him. "I told my players before the game that if we compared the ages they were a very inexperienced team," he said. He believes United, who will face Athletic Bilbao after the Spaniards' 1-0 second -leg win over Lokomotiv Moscow, can win the tournament with "the experienced players they have." Ferguson's problem is calibrating how much experience he needs. It was only a week ago in Amsterdam that he promised he would not stint on it in Europe again.
The expectation around Cleverley has been so great that it is easy to overlook that this was only his second European outing. His struggle "to get into the pace of the game", as Ferguson put it, is of little concern. It perhaps did not help United's cause that Ajax were forced to dispense caution and became liberated after United's early strike gave them a three-goal advantage.
Before then, there was encouragement in the intuitive partnership between Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. The ball Berbatov measured around the back of a midfielder on an unfeasibly narrow path to Hernandez, after five minutes, would be one of the sweetest moments of United's night. The Mexican took it with a divine first touch, swivelled around past Jan Vertonghen, and seized the clear opening to slot the ball home. Berbatov was the man Hernandez immediately sought out to offer acclaim.
But Ajax steadied themselves and though the neat possession game which De Boer has inculcated in them did not look to have an immediate bite, they found pockets of space to make United edgy. Smalling was lucky to escape with a late challenge on Christian Eriksen on the edge of the United box and David de Gea dealt unconvincingly with a cross, palming the ball into his own area and in need of rapid removal.
A growing lack of discipline and precision was punished eight minutes before the break when Nicolas Lodeiro forged a path towards the edge of the box – handling the ball on his way, to Ferguson's mind – and a challenge between Jones and Siem de Jong served to squirt the ball into the path of Aras Ozbiliz who fired an equaliser which deflected in off Jones.
The Dutch ascendancy after the interval made the prospect of a second European elimination in three months a constant danger and it was in this maelstrom that De Gea revealed that, for all his uncertainties with the high ball, his reflex goalkeeping is world class. His instincts enabled him to palm the ball up and over the bar with strong hands when De Jong met a corner with a powerful header in the six-yard box. It would proved to be a potentially tie-saving intervention.
Jones and Scholes offered greater muscularity in a reshaped midfield and the danger seemed to have passed over when Nani cut into the Ajax box on the counter attack, on 73 minutes, and lashed the ball against the bar. But Ozbiliz's lofted free-kick found Toby Alderweireld, who ghosted around the back to equalise as United failed to mark, four minutes from time. A hush descended on the Stretford End until United emerged intact. Ferguson pledged more experience for Bilbao. It may be a long road to Bucharest.
Man of the match Ozbiliz.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee D Skomina (Sloven).
Round of 16 draw
Metalist Kharkiv v Olympiakos
Sporting Lisbon v Manchester City
FC Twente v Schalke
Standard Liège v Hannover
Valencia v PSV Eindhoven
AZ Alkmaar v Udinese
Atletico Madrid v Besiktas
Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao
First legs take place Thursday 8 March, second legs take place Thursday 15 March