Manchester United play a
European match outside the Champions League for the first time
since 1995 on Thursday when they meet Ajax Amsterdam in the
Europa League with manager Sir Alex Ferguson convinced they are
unlucky not to be challenging for the European Cup as usual.
United, who have reached the Champions League final three
times in the past four seasons, failed to advance past the group
stage this season after dropping vital points drawing and losing
They now face Ajax in a round of 32 first leg game - their
first at this level of European competition since they played a
UEFA Cup tie against Rotor Volgograd of Russia in 1995/96 when
they were beaten on away goals in the first round.
Since then they have had 16 successive seasons in the
Champions League and were European champions in 1999 and 2008 as
well as losing finalists in 2009 and last season.
Ferguson, talking ahead of their trip to Amsterdam, told
FIFA.com that United's early exit from the Champions League was
a blip and as much down to bad luck as anything else.
"I feel we had the ability to go all the way to the final,"
he said. "Luck wasn't on our side, but I think we've got the
ambition to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and I don't
feel we're that far away from them. I'm sure we'll show that
United, as ever, are in contention for the Premier League
title again and after their 2-1 win over Liverpool on Saturday,
are just two points behind rivals Manchester City with 13
matches to play.
"We've had our ups and downs and we've been unlucky with
injuries," Ferguson added. "We've had a lot of them, which you
don't expect, and we've got people like Nemanja Vidic and Darren
Fletcher out for the whole season.
"You can replace your best players for a game or two, but
you really notice the difference over a longer period, and
that's what's happened to us.
"Even so, we're fighting hard to win the premiership again
and there's a lot of merit in that. Obviously I'm optimistic
about our chances."
One man who has escaped injury this season, as he has
largely done since first breaking into the side in 1991, is
38-year-old Ryan Giggs, who has made more appearances for United
than anyone and will reach another milestone if he plays on
It would be his 900th match for the club and he shows no
signs of slowing down after announcing he is signing a new
contract taking him till the end of next season.
Giggs has been on the United playing staff so long, he was
around when they met Torpedo Moscow in the first round of the
UEFA Cup in 1992/93, United losing on penalties after both legs
ended goalless. Both he and Paul Scholes, also played against
Volgograd 16 seasons ago.
Elite football today bears little resemblance now but Giggs
says he is determined not to make the same mistake as team-mate
Scholes by retiring too early. Scholes is back in the team after
coming out of retirement last month.
"When to retire is difficult. Do you quit too early or go
that one too many games and let people see you on the slide?
Retirement is just a decision that I have to take my time with
because I feel different after each game," Giggs told the Daily
"He [Scholes] was missing it and it's no secret that me,
Gary [Neville] and a few other people felt that he had finshed
too early, but who where we to know?
"We wanted him to carry on but he'd made his decision quite
early and it was probably too early, which I think he accepts
now. Who knows? Maybe he'll carry on next year."
Giggs says his career was extended by the switch from
playing on the left wing into the centre of midfield over the
last few seasons.
"Moving in to central midfield has definitely helped me," he
said. "I had a taste of what it was like on the wing against
Liverpool on Saturday and it's just completely different because
you are up and down all the time."
Although United and Ajax, who have also dropped into the
Europa League, are among the elite European clubs lifting the
European Cup seven times between them, they have met only twice
Those meetings came in a UEFA Cup first round tie in 1975/76
which United won 2-1 on aggregate after Ajax had won 1-0 in
Amsterdam with a Ruud Krol goal. United won 2-0 at Old Trafford
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