United go through despite Dutch defeat

Manchester United 1 Ajax 2 (United win 3-2 on aggregate)

Manchester United limped into a Europa League last-16 meeting with Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford this evening after coming perilously close to being knocked out by Ajax.

Two goals ahead of the Dutch giants at kick-off after an excellent performance in Amsterdam seven days ago, the Red Devils got off to the perfect start this evening when Javier Hernandez put them in front after just five minutes.

United failed to capitalise though. And after Aras Ozbiliz had levelled on the night, the midfielder then set home nerves jangling four minutes from time by dropping a free-kick on to the head of Toby Alderweireld, who powered home from close range.

Another for the visitors would have sent them through on away goals. Thankfully for a red-faced United, they did not manage it and England avoided another dreadful European night on what has been a pretty poor campaign all round.

In his programme notes, Sir Alex Ferguson had dismissed the theory this was a competition his team did not want to be involved in.

However, he will know significant improvement will be required against an Athletic outfit that have already secured a Copa del Rey final meeting with Barcelona and are pushing strongly for a place in next season's Champions League.

Memories of the manner in which his side tossed away a two-goal lead in the Champions League against Basel before eventually scraping a draw that ultimately cost them their place in the competition burned deep enough in Ferguson's psyche for the United boss to issue a warning yesterday.

United started as though the prospect was unthinkable.

Nani had already forced Kenneth Vermeer into a flying save when Dimitar Berbatov brilliantly found Hernandez with a defence-splitting pass.

The Mexican skipped inside Jan Vertonghen before finding the bottom corner.

It was the fourth consecutive game Hernandez has scored, taking his season's tally to 10 and confirming he has now found the form which made him one of last season's sensations.

Had Hernandez been more selfish when he was set free by Fabio not long afterwards, United might well have doubled their lead.

As it was, he opted to try and pick out Berbatov with a square ball which Vertonghen was wise to.

It was not the last time the Ajax skipper made a timely intervention, which must have been noted by both Harry Redknapp and Stuart Pearce, who were present in the directors' box.

And the visitors' other star man, Christian Eriksen, took his cue to start making an impact at the other end.

David de Gea was unconvincing as he pushed one of Eriksen's teasing crosses out of his six-yard area and was fortunate Rafael was on hand to complete the clearance.

The large and voluble visiting contingent drew boos from their home counterparts as they launched into a song in favour of former hero Luis Suarez.

It was not long before they had something more meaningful to agitate United with though as the home defence failed to smother growing danger outside their penalty area.

Phil Jones' intervention only presented Ozbiliz with a half-volley which he lashed home in clinical fashion.

Jones had been at the centre of a pre-game stir when the official UEFA team sheet had indicated he was about to become United's youngest captain.

When the teams emerged though, Park Ji-sung was wearing the armband and his 20-year-old team-mate relegated to a mere foot soldier.

It is surely a job Jones will get one day though. And his timely second-half clearance came during a period of the game when Ajax were starting to get on top.

Nicolas Lodeiro wasted a good opportunity which Eriksen had created, then De Jong powered a header goalwards that brought a brilliant reaction save from De Gea.

Ferguson was sufficiently vexed to bring on Paul Scholes in a double change that highlighted Jones' versatility as he moved into central midfield alongside the old maestro.

The move worked to the extent of halting Ajax's incessant stream of attacks but it was not until Danny Welbeck made his way on to the pitch that Nani flickered back into life, cutting in from the right flank before clipping the bar with a brutal shot.

Alderweireld's late header really made life interesting.

But whilst it gave Ajax a victory they just about deserved on the night, it was not enough.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home