MAN UTD 1, AJAX 2
(United win 3-2 on aggregate)
Sir Alex Ferguson shouldered the blame as faltering Manchester United scraped through to the last 16 of the Europa League.
The Reds’ manager admitted he got it wrong with his team selection as Dutch side Ajax triumphed at Old Trafford but lost on aggregate over the two legs.
Ferguson said: “I have to accept responsibility for playing so many young players in the back four which was a big ask.
“As we were 2-0 up from the first leg, it was a good opportunity to give Chris Smalling and Phil Jones a game as they had been out for a long time. They needed to play, as did Tom Cleverley, and the minutes they played will help us in the weeks ahead.
“We survived and had a bit of luck as we didn’t play well and it was a nervy night.”
United, who have now failed to win three of their last four European games at Old Trafford, also had the da Silva twins at full back while Cleverley and Ji-Sung Park were an unfamiliar pairing in the centre of midfield.
The hard graft had already been done in Amsterdam where United won 2-0 which was just as well as it was a far from vintage display from United who suffered a rare European defeat on home soil.
Indeed, had Ajax possessed a more ruthless cutting edge, they might have caused an upset as large as United’s early elimination from the Champions League at the group stage.
The visitors more than matched United but failed to take the chances as they ultimately failed despite a heroic effort in the return leg.
United made a bright start in which Nani had a shot beaten out by keeper Kenneth Vermeer before they found the net in the sixth minute.
An exquisite through ball from Dimitar Berbatov released Javier Hernandez who cut inside Jan Vertonghen before firing home a low shot from the edge of the penalty area for his tenth goal of the season.
Rafael da Silva could have doubled the advantage but he was denied by Vermeer as it looked like being a stroll for United.
Whether complacency set in, but United wavered as Ajax became more of a threat and created some clear-cut chances.
Aras Ozbiliz forced a smart save from David De Gea and Nicolas Lodeiro had an effort ruled out for offside before they deservedly equalised in the 37th minute.
Phil Jones only cleared a cross as far as Ozbiliz who rifled home a low shot from well outside the penalty area.
Tom Cleverley had a fierce shot beaten out by Vermeer as the opening half finished 1-1.
United were no better after the restart as supposed United target Christian Eriksen blazed over when he ought to have hit the target and Siem de Jong forced a brilliant save from de Gea.
Had either of those efforts gone in, United would have been left clinging on to a precarious aggregate advantage as United ride their luck.
Indeed they had to summon Jonny Evans and Paul Scholes from the bench early in the second half to provide steel which had previously been lacking while Danny Welbeck also made his entrance with 20 minutes left.
Nani ought to have made absolutely certain of victory in the 73rd minute when his long-range missile struck the crossbar.
United were left to endure a nerve-jangling final three minutes of normal time and a further two of stoppages as Ajax snatched a second goal near the end.
Toby Alderweireld found the net with a far-post header from close range after a floated free kick from Ozbiliz as Ajax knew another goal would put them through.
It was a case of United running down the clock but it was a sign of their anxiety that Evans was booked for time wasting as their passage to the last 16 was far from comfortable.