PARIS, France, February 22 – Manchester United’s march towards the latter stages of the Europa League looks set to continue on Thursday when they line up against Ajax at Old Trafford leading 2-0 from the first leg in the round of 32.
United’s exit from the Champions League following a 2-1 defeat at FC Basel in December was a huge shock to the club’s fans and came barely seven months after defeat by Barcelona in the final of Europe’s premier club competition.
To their credit, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have put their full weight behind the Champions League’s poorer relation and, at this stage, must be considered among the favourites to reach the May 9 final.
United have yet to be beaten at home by a Dutch side and defender Chris Smalling, set to return to the starting 11 after sitting on the bench at the Amsterdam ArenA, says the players are committed to winning the competition.
“Obviously we’d still like to be in the Champions League but we’re looking at the Europa League as a second chance,” Smalling told www.manutd.com.
“We’re going to go out there and show Europe we can still perform and we can still win trophies.
“We want to reach the final, although we know it won’t be easy. All of the players will be going out on the pitch and giving our all to reach the final.”
United, however, could find the going tougher in the latter stages of the competition.
Atletico Madrid, who beat Fulham to the trophy in 2010, have been one of the tournament’s form sides and seem to have found fresh impetus since former Argentina international Diego Simeone took over as coach.
Atletico will be missing Brazilian midfielder Diego, due to a torn right thigh muscle, for their home game against Lazio.
But despite sitting in the comfort zone following a 3-1 first-leg win in Rome last week, they are taking nothing for granted against a team that striker Falcao, who scored goals in either half last week, describes as “highly dangerous”.
“Lazio are highly dangerous and we cannot go out there thinking we are safely through,” said Falcao, who scored a record 17 goals on the way to victory with FC Porto last season.
Sporting Lisbon, losing finalists in 2005 when the Portuguese fell 3-1 to CSKA Moscow, can take a step towards a last-16 encounter against Manchester City or Porto — who play on Wednesday — if they come through their tie against Legia Warsaw.
The Portuguese side twice fought back from a goal down in Poland last week to claim a precious 2-2 draw and will be demanding the same kind of commitment at the Jose Alvalade stadium.
FC Twente, meanwhile, hope their visit to Bucharest’s National Arena is a taster of things to come.
The Dutch team remain undefeated after a total of five games against Romanian sides and, with Bucharest hosting the final, Steve McClaren’s side will be looking to build on their 1-0 first-leg lead against the hosts.
Fellow Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven, meanwhile, are at home to Trabzonspor and, after a 2-1 away win last week, they can book a last-16 clash against either Valencia or Stoke City if they prevail over two legs against the Turkish side.