It was Steven Gerrard who once described this tournament as “nothing special, an ugly kid brother compared to the handsome Champions League”, though Liverpool won it that year, and Manchester United also looked like a side who could grow accustomed to Thursday night shifts as they made a significant stride towards the next staging post on the long Europa League trek.
Their display was not exactly lustrous and you imagined a fairly colourful half-time contribution by Sir Alex Ferguson, judging by the tempo they suddenly found after re-emerging for what was the manager's first win in this tournament as United manager. Against an Ajax side whose decline from their glory days has been vertiginous, to judge by this performance, United's battle appeared to be with themselves rather more than their opponents. But they found the necessary desire to prevail.
It helped that the setting befitted two of the continent's great conquistadors and when a pale early evening sun broke across the city's icy canals, the diminished status actually seemed to carry its compensations. "Thursday nights in Amsterdam," went up the United anthem.
Ferguson played his part, too. A headline in the match programme read "Welcome, Fergie Kids" but that was Dutch wishful thinking. The team sheet was one of a man who meant business. The Rio Ferdinand of old was at the helm, even though his marginally late challenge on Miralem Sulejmani ought to have handed Ajax a penalty in the last moment of the first half. Tom Cleverley's was a one-hour performance of poise which bore out the paeans of praise his manager has been showering him with during his four-month absence. Cleverley has been the source of such talk that it almost went unobserved that this was his European debut.
There were frustrations for a time. It seemed that someone had scrambled Nani's crossing facility in his three and a half weeks out and Ashley Young's sense of direction wasn't much better. Javier Hernandez was flapping his hands in frustration at the paucity of service rendered. "Look, play the ball back," Wayne Rooney mouthed as Nani stuck another spoke in the wheel. David de Gea came to the fore, diving to glove away a powerful 30-yard shot from Siem de Jong as the Dutch champions began to assume some self belief.
It wasn't the type of Ajax football embodied by Johan Cruyff, who judging by the banners does not appear to be blamed for dragging the club into civil war, though there were too many dangerous moments for United's liking. Dico Koppers seized on a sloppy pass from Jonny Evans and raced towards goal but was seized by a lack of belief and shot early, instead of crossing. It required far better awareness from Evans to head clear the first of several dangerous crosses from the Ajax left, with Dimitru Bulykin lurking with menace. The source of all the pre-match clamour, Christian Eriksen, was quiet until he forced De Gea into a stop with a speculative effort from 30 yards.
Even in victory, Ferguson found all this hard to forget. "The result was better than the performance," he reflected. "I just think we didn't speed up our game enough. I know they press the ball very well. But we needed to play quicker. We made it difficult for ourselves."
Rooney, the last man from the field in the end by some distance, was the player whose game suggested that he doesn't care what silverware he's competing for. Wheeling around in midfield, a first-half pass with his right out-step almost had Hernandez through but Kenneth Vermeer raced out to respond quickly.
He suffered for United's opening goal, too. Central defender Jan Vertonghen blasted a clearance straight at him and while he squatted on the pitch, badly winded, Nani collected the loose ball, took it to the byline and drilled a low cross which was deflected into the path of Young. He drilled his fourth goal of the season through Vermeer's legs to send United ahead.
Valencia suffered for United's second, too. He hurt his hamstring in the tackle that set off the counter-attack which saw Hernandez and Rooney exchange passes and the Mexican slot home.
United are all but through, with Lokomotiv Moscow's 2-1 first leg win at home to Atletico Bilbao leaving their likely next opposition difficult to call. It will be a long road to May's final in Bucharest and not every round will offer a setting like this, but Ferguson looks like a manger intent on allowing no torpor. The strains of Zadok the Priest have faded away for United, replaced for now by a Europa League anthem which has no words – but after the dismay of Champions League eliminiation the manager will ensure he sets the tune. "It's difficult to say [what it will be like] because we've never experienced the Europa League before," Ferguson said. "If we can get through this, it's another exciting game – Atletico Bilbao or Locomotiv. There's no lack of incentive anyway, with the prospect of some big games."
Another little piece of history is his today: he'll take a first win in this tournament with United, whether the trophy it offers is beautiful or not.
Man of the match Ferdinand.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee G Rocchi (It).
Attendance 51,000.Reuse content