Manchester United through to last 16 of Europa League

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Manchester United endured a nervous second half against Ajax Amsterdam losing 2-1 at Old Trafford, but advanced to claim a place alongside neighbours Manchester City in the Europa League last 16.

The Premier League champions will face Spain’s Athletic Bilbao in the next round after Javier Hernandez‘s early goal was enough to help ensure United advanced via a narrow 3-2 aggregate scoreline.

Aras Obiliz pulled a goal back for the Dutch visitors before half-time and, mindful of a costly home collapse against FC Basel in the Champions League earlier this season, United briefly looked under pressure.

However, Ajax only managed to claim one of the two goals they needed to win the tie on away goals, an 86th minute header from six yards by defender Toby Alderweireld from an Ozbiliz free-kick.

Comfortably ahead from the first leg, Sir Alex Ferguson had nonetheless named a strong line-up, one which took the lead after only five minutes.

Park Ji-Sung, named captain for the night, two days out from his 31st birthday, intercepted the ball on the halfway line and his pass to Dimitar Berbatov was moved on to Hernandez who made short work of beating Alderweireld and planting the ball past Kenneth Vermeer.

It was an electrifying start from the Premier League champions who had already tested Vermeer through an early Nani shot which the goalkeeper parried away from his goal.

The Dutch had their moments in the first quarter of the game — Christian Eriksen’s effort was deflected behind, Miralem Sulejmani shot over from 18 yards, Siem de Jong shot well wide and David de Gea saved acrobatically from Nicolas Lodeiro’s attempt on the turn.

But, as they had during throughout the first leg in Amsterdam, United looked capable of adding to the goals column.

In the 15th minute, Hernandez selflessly tried to pick out Berbatov, rather than take a shot himself, which allowed Jan Vertonghen to recover and intercept.

Rafael, in an advanced position from his right-back berth, drove a shot too close to Vermeer from the edge of the area and Berbatov attempted to find Hernandez with a pass across the area when it looked far more advisable to try a shot himself.

The Ajax fans, in good voice despite their team’s imminent exit from the competition, incited the anger of the home supporters by chanting the name of their former favourite Luis Suarez, the Liverpool player who has been embroiled in a high-profile race row with United’s Patrice Evra this season.

England caretaker manager Stuart Pearce was also watching from the stands, checking on the four United starters — Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young — whom he had named in his squad for next week’s friendly international Holland earlier in the day.

But Jones was unable to prevent Ajax equalising through Ozbiliz after 38 minutes. Sulejmani’s header was turned into the area by Lodeiro, with Jones only managing to half clear the ball, returning it to the feet of Ozbiliz who swiftly placed it past de Gea into the bottom left-hand corner from 20 yards.

Cleverley attempted to restore the three-goal aggregate cushion with a 22-yard shot which Vermeer cleared with a diving, two-fisted punch.

The goal breathed life and belief into the Dutch side who sensed a degree of nervousness in the United ranks.

Sulejmani began to exert an increasing influence on the game with one cross causing anxiety as Fabio slipped in clearing it, then seeing a shot hitting a defender and flying to safety.

Eriksen made good progress in the area and pulled back for Lodeiro who lifted a shot over from eight yards before Sulejmani created an opening for goalscorer Ozbiliz who saw his shot strike Rafael.

Closest yet to a second goal, de Jong met Eriksen’s left-wing corner with a well-directed near-post header which de Gea saved superbly, tipping the ball over his bar one-handed.

United brought on veteran Paul Scholes in an attempt to nullify the Ajax threat and the tactic seemed to work with the visitors’ possession and chances drying up.

Instead, Nani might have put the outcome beyond all doubt when he cut in from the left and hit the crossbar with a tremendous left-foot shot from 18 yards and substitute Danny Welbeck broke forward promisingly only to produce a disappointing cross that was easily cut out by a defender.

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