Sir Alex Ferguson described the UEFA Europa League as "new territory" for his Manchester United FC team to conquer but they claimed their place in the last 16 only after a stumble. Leading 2-0 from the first leg, United lost 2-1 to AFC Ajax to scrape through as 3-2 aggregate winners to a round of 16 meeting with Spanish side Athletic Club.
United looked home and dry when Javier Hernández extended their aggregate advantage after six minutes but Aras Özbiliz equalised before the break and Toby Alderweireld's late header ensured an anxious final few minutes inside Old Trafford.
A contingent of over 3,000 Ajax fans were in good voice before kick-off, singing their trademark refrain from Bob Marley's Three Little Birds: "Don't worry about a thing." However, their team soon had reason to doubt that every little thing was going to be alright.
Although Kenneth Vermeer beat away Nani's shot inside the first minute, by the sixth minute United did have a goal. Ji-Sung Park, wearing the captain's armband, intercepted Jan Vertonghen's pass and Dimitar Berbatov fed Hernández, who stepped inside Alderweireld and clipped the ball past Vermeer.
After Nicolás Lodeiro had a goal ruled out for offside, Özbiliz gave Ajax a glimmer of hope with his first European goal eight minutes before the break. Phil Jones beat Siem de Jong to the ball in the box but cleared only as far as Özbiliz, whose fierce drive took a slight deflection off Jones en route to the bottom corner.
Frank de Boer's men began the second half seeking a second goal but Lodeiro shot over from Christian Eriksen's cutback, then David de Gea – in front of his watching predecessor, Edwin van der Sar – saved well from De Jong's header.
Sir Alex sent on Paul Scholes and pushed Jones forward to plug the gaps in United's midfield, and Nani struck the crossbar, but Ajax were not finished. Özbiliz lofted a free-kick to the far post and Alderweireld's header ensured they exit the competition with their heads held high.
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