"When the Ajax ball was drawn, it went silent," said AFC Ajax captain Jan Vertonghen as he recalled watching the UEFA Europa League round of 32 draw with his team-mates. "When United came out of the pot, there was a wow."
Manchester United FC were the side most were eager to avoid, but Belgian international defender Vertonghen can see the positives. "We all saw United winning the Champions League in 1999 and 2008," the 24-year-old said. "They have had hundreds of tremendous players. They have a great coach, big stars and Old Trafford is a nice stadium. You cannot look beyond that. Of course, we will be out for a good result, but we have to enjoy the opportunity and the atmosphere."
Ajax coach Frank de Boer felt similarly excited. "We may then not be in the Champions League anymore, but this certainly is a Champions League draw," he gushed. "This is a brilliant pairing, and it will be a fantastic experience for our players and technical staff." Sir Alex Ferguson was also enthused by the draw, noting: "Ajax are a good team and I've never faced them in competitive European football. I'm looking forward to it."
Manchester City FC boss Roberto Mancini has met FC Porto before – as a coach with FC Internazionale Milano and S.S. Lazio, and as a player with UC Sampdoria – and he was a little edgy about taking on the reigning UEFA Europa League champions. "When I looked at the teams we could face I thought Porto would be the toughest," he admitted. "We know this game will be difficult, but also it will be difficult for them."
Porto coach Vítor Pereira would not argue with that assessment. "These will be two great matches," he said. "Concentration and motivation levels will be high. We know them relatively well because of games on TV. It's a match for which [ticket] demand will be high and the reaction I had from my players was enthusiastic.
"That is how we have to deal with this tie. If we want to defend our title, we have to understand that facing Manchester City now or towards the end of the competition is the same. They are opponents that excite us but we have our strengths, too."
Elsewhere, Lazio's meeting with Club Atlético de Madrid has captured both sides' imaginations. "In the end, it is a good thing," explained the Rome side's Czech forward Libor Kozák. "We will test ourselves against a great team and we can't wait for that." Atlético left-back Felipe Luis did not exactly share that enthusiasm. "I don't really like the draw much but two years ago we won this title and I feel that this year we are united enough to repeat that success," he said.
Reaching the final at the National Arena, Bucharest, on 9 May 2012 is the dream for all 32 sides, and none more so than FC Steaua Bucureşti, who play their home games at that stadium. FC Twente lie in wait for Romania's last European contenders this season – a side they drew against twice in the 2009/10 UEFA Europa League group stage. "We have a significant chance to qualify, even if we are not the favourites, and we will go for it," captain Alexandru Bourceanu told UEFA.com.
Goalkeeper Ciprian Tătăruşanu could only agree, mindful of the task that awaits Ajax and Porto in February. "It could have been much worse," the custodian told UEFA.com. "What could I have said if we would have been drawn against, say, either of the Manchester teams? Our chances would have been almost zero."
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