Ferguson faces Ajax for first time in 30 years

Tough for both Manchester clubs...but Stoke have hardest draw against Valencia

It did not take long for the Manchester clubs to discover their Europa League fates yesterday as City were the first seeded team drawn, closely followed by United.

With City to face Porto, the holders, and United paired with fellow former Champions League winners Ajax, it was not the kindest of draws given the calibre of other sides divided among Uefa's plethora of glass pots in Nyon but it is one that should serve to kindle genuine interest in the tournament in the north-west and also one that is far from insurmountable.

Stoke were given the toughest challenge of the three English clubs in the last 32 with a tie against Valencia, currently lying third in La Liga. If they come through that, Trabzonspor or PSV Eindhoven await in the last 16.

It will be a first-ever meeting with Ajax for Sir Alex Ferguson in 30 years of European competition and as a manager for whom history matters, it is a tie that should prick his interest, despite having previously described the drop from the Champions League as a "penalty". "I'm looking forward to it," said Ferguson of February's encounter that will pitch together two clubs that have won Europe's premier prize seven times between them. The first leg is provisionally scheduled to be in Amsterdam on 16 February with the return in Manchester a week later.

City's task would appear the tougher against a side that lifted the trophy under the guidance of Andre Villas-Boas last season and have yet to lose a domestic game this season, but Porto failed to get out of a straightforward Champions League group and could not get the better of Apoel Nicosia either home or away. Radamel Falcao, scorer of a record 17 goals en route to last season's triumph in Dublin, has gone, although his strike partner Hulk remains as a potent forward threat. Falcao was signed by Atletico Madrid as a replacement for the City-bound Sergio Aguero. Vitor Pereira, who was previously assistant to Villas-Boas, has taken over from the Chelsea manager for what is the 43-year-old's first job in the Portuguese top flight.

"Manchester City against Porto feels like a Champions League game, it is probably the toughest game we could have had," said City manager Roberto Mancini. "I have come up against them as a player before and also a manager, they are a very good team and a very strong club in Europe. They are used to playing in Europe, in a great stadium. It is a good game for the fans, a big team coming to Manchester, and we will be looking forward to it."

The two legs are pencilled in for the same dates as United's but the home fixture is likely to be brought forward to either 21 or 22 February with a 5pm kick-off to avoid clashing with Champions League matches on the same evening. If City progress to the last 16 they face the prospect of another Portuguese trip – they will meet the winners of Sporting Lisbon against Legia Warsaw. United's last-16 opponents would be either Lokomotiv Moscow or Athletic Bilbao.

United, as Premier League winners, have priority in Manchester and so will take the Thursday night (on Channel 5) slot for both legs in a contest that unlike any of the Champions League ties pits two current domestic champions against each other.

"It's two teams that should have been in the Champions League still," said Henri van der Aat, Ajax's commercial director . "[United] will be very motivated. You have to show the world that even if you are in the Europa League, that you can win it."

Ajax suffered an unfortunate exit from the Champions League. The last round of group games saw Lyons' improbable seven goals in Zagreb combine with Ajax's 3-0 home defeat by Real Madrid to deliver the nine-goal swing the French side required to remain in the competition.

Ajax took the Dutch crown for the first time in seven years last season but have slipped to fourth in this campaign, eight points behind leaders AZ Alkmaar. Frank de Boer's young side are erratic; fluent going forward through the likes of Christian Eriksen, the 19-year-old Danish playmaker who has earned high praise from Johan Cruyff, and the free-scoring Serbian Miralem Sulejmani, but far from convincing at the back despite the presence of Gregory van der Wiel, one of Europe's best young defenders and a part of the Dutch side that reached the World Cup final last year.

Off the field, Ajax have even greater problems with the board at loggerheads over the club's future direction. Cruyff this week succeeded in a legal challenge that led to a judge ordering Louis van Gaal's appointment as a director to be temporarily suspended. Cruyff is seeking to reinvigorate the club's famous youth system by bringing in former greats such as Dennis Bergkamp to oversee it.

Three of a kind: English opposition

Ajax v Manchester United

How they got here

The Dutch outfit finished third in their Champions League group behind Real Madrid and Lyons.

The Manager

Frank de Boer

Dutch legend guided the club to their first league title in seven years last season.

Star player

Christian Eriksen.

The 19-year-old attacking midfielder has just won the Danish Football Talent of the Year.

Previous European best

European Cup 1971, 72, 73, 95.

Record v English teams

P19 W6 D6 L7 F18 A23

Past meeting

1976-77 Uefa Cup first round: Ajax 1-0 Man Utd; Man Utd 2-0 Ajax.

Porto v Manchester City

How they got here

Third in Champions League group behind Apoel Nicosia and Zenit St Petersburg.

The Manager

Vitor Pereira

Promoted from assistant after Andre Villa-Boas left.

Star player

Hulk

Powerful striker with €100m buy-out clause.

Previous best

European Cup 1987, 2004.

Record v English teams

P30 W6 D9 L15 F28 A50

Past meetings

n/a

Valencia v Stoke City

How they got here

The Spaniards also finished third in their Champions League group behind Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen.

The Manager

Unai Emery

Renowned tactician led his team to third in La Liga last season.

Star player

Roberto Soldado

The 26-year-old pacey striker has scored 14 goals in 21 games in all competitions this season.

Previous European best

Uefa Cup 2004.

Record v English teams

P37 W10 D17 L10 F36 A35

Past meetings

n/a

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