MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, February 24 – Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson took full responsibility for his team’s unconvincing passage into the last 16 of the Europa League and a potential meeting in the later stages with Manchester City.
The veteran manager saw his team beaten 2-1 at Old Trafford by Ajax but a 2-0 first leg lead carried United through in nervous fashion although it took a magnificent late save from David de Gea from a Christian Eriksen header to ensure his side did not exit on away goals.
United now face Spanish side Athletic Bilbao in the next phase with neighbours, and Premier League title rivals, City also still in strong contention.
“It would be a fascinating prospect if we got to the final,” said Ferguson. “But it doesn’t matter how you get to a final or who you play there. The important thing for us is to try and get to the final.”
United have never won the Europa League, in any of its various forms, and there appeared the very real danger of that record continuing as Ajax turned in a magnificent second half display.
Aras Obiliz equalised an early goal from United’s Javier Hernandez before a late header from Toby Alderweireld secured a 2-1 win on the night for the Dutch side.
United paid for fielding an inexperienced line-up that featured four defenders and a goalkeeper with an average age of just 21.
“I’ve got to accept the responsibility tonight myself,” said Ferguson.
“Playing so many young players in the back four positions was a big ask. It was a good opportunity to give Phil Jones and Chris Smalling a game.
“But their lack of experience at pushing up and tightening up a game showed. For a European game it was too much of a risk. We survived it with a bit of luck but we really didn’t play well in the second half.”
More surprisingly, given their typical dominance at Old Trafford, the defeat marked the fourth time this season that United have lost a home game following league defeats to Manchester City and Blackburn, plus a League Cup exit to Crystal Palace.
Ferguson, however, is clearly in no mood to experiment going forward in the competition.
“The next game is home against Bilbao and I think you’ll find the experienced players will play in that,” he added.
Small consolation for Ferguson arrived in the match-saving stop made by his goalkeeper de Gea, plus the fact that Smalling, Jones and Tom Cleverley — all named in Stuart Pearce’s England squad for next week’s friendly against Holland — gained much-needed playing time in their respective returns from injuries.
“Tom found it very difficult tonight to get into the pace of the game but it will bring him on,” he said.
“Smalling and Jones have been out for a long time. They all gained experience, minutes on the clock for the weeks ahead.”
However, Wayne Rooney, who missed the Ajax game with a throat infection, is still not certain to play in United’s next league game, at Norwich on Sunday.
“Rooney is still out at the moment,” he said. “So we will have to wait and see. We’re trying our best.”
Ajax coach Frank de Boer, meanwhile, was clearly disappointed at not having pulled off what would have been one of the big upsets of the European season.
“The feeling is one of disappointment,” he said. “We could have done more. The feeling from the first minute was that we could have had a bigger victory.
“I have very high expectations of the team, very high standards, I expect a certain level. But we didn’t reach it, certainly in the first half of the game.
“I was very angry at half-time. They did better in the second half but we still could have done much more damage to United.
“I told them before the game, if we compared the ages, they were a very inexperienced team and they play a system which is very suitable for the way we play.
“But of course, United can now win it. The experienced players they have, of course there is the possibility. There are some good teams but Manchester United must be one of the favourites.”