United through despite scare

Streatham Guardian: Sir Alex Ferguson Sir Alex Ferguson

Manchester United came perilously close to a shock Europa League knockout by Ajax but progressed 3-2 on aggregate despite a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford.

Already two goals up from the first leg, the hosts appeared to have ended any doubt over a last 16 meeting with Athletic Bilbao when Javier Hernandez scored after just five minutes.

But Aras Ozbiliz levelled on the night before his free-kick was nodded home by Toby Alderweireld to leave the hosts to hang on for the final four minutes.

It took only six minutes for United's grip on the tie to be strengthened even further. Ajax lost possession, Park Ji-sung passed to Dimitar Berbatov and the Bulgarian picked out Javier Hernandez, who eased past a defender on the edge of the box and fired in.

Hernandez was almost presented with another opportunity in the 32nd minute when a deflection just took Berbatov's pass away from him in the danger zone, but it was the visitors who were beginning to catch the eye with their attacking intent, Nicolas Lodeiro putting the ball in the net soon after but judged to be offside.

The Dutch side were then just unable to apply a finish to a cross which flashed across the United box and within seconds, they had an equaliser. The ball came from Lodeiro - possibly via his arm - and back off a combination of Phil Jones and Siem de Jong to Ozbiliz 20 yards from goal and the Armenian drilled past David De Gea to draw things level on the night.

Ajax emerged for the second half with their tails up and - perhaps spurred on by thoughts of Basle's efforts in coming back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 at Old Trafford in a Champions League game earlier in the season - enjoyed a spell of considerable pressure as they looked to continue the fightback.

Jones cleared away a cross from Jan Vertonghen right in front of goal and Rafael got his head in the way of a drive from Miralem Sulejmani. Lodeiro shot too high from Christian Eriksen's tee-up and De Gea showed great instincts to push De Jong's header over the bar.

Ferguson reacted by throwing on Jonny Evans and Paul Scholes for Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley. Another of United's England contingent, Danny Welbeck, was introduced for Berbatov, although it was Nani who clipped the bar after cutting in off the right wing.

Toby Alderweireld nodded an Hernandez cross away from Jones, then, moments later, the defender did significant damage at the other end as he ghosted to the far post to power Ozbiliz's free-kick into the net from close range.

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