• Patrice Evra left out of Ajax game after tough weekend
• United take return to Europe's second tier seriously
It is a grand European occasion in name only. Ajax against Manchester United in the imposing Amsterdam ArenA, four European Cups against three, 30 league titles against 19, one fertile breeding ground for homegrown talent against another and two legendary club figures in the respective dug-outs. Then the music starts and United's players will resemble aged clubbers on a rare night out, shuffling uncomfortably and muttering, "I don't know this one". Welcome to the Europa League.
For the first time since losing to Rotor Volgograd on away goals in the first round of the 1995-96 Uefa Cup, European football's second tier is home for United following failure to finish above Benfica and Basel in their Champions League group. Sir Alex Ferguson left Amsterdam vowing never to return on his last visit with United six years ago, or to the pre-season tournament that bears its name at least, after Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes were reported to the Football Association for red cards in a friendly against Porto (the former for an elbow on Pepe, now of Real Madrid) and served with three-match domestic suspensions. If it pains him to be back while the Champions League goes on without the finalists in three of the past four seasons, Ferguson is disguising it well.
Asked how it felt to be present in the Europa League, the United manager said: "I feel good about it. It's a tournament we are going to try to win. We have a responsibility to do better after the disappointment of earlier in the season. We have an opportunity to do better and, when you look at the Europa League, it's a challenge. The disappointment of the Champions League is gone. We have many young players who don't have great experience of Europe so that should be enough motivation for them. The final is in Romania, I want to be there, so do my supporters and I won't find motivation difficult."
Complacency undoubtedly played a part in United's exit from the Champions League group stage and not only in the form of talking up their prospects of beating Barcelona before the competition had commenced. As Ferguson volunteered, it was also evident in his team selections.
He said: "I will certainly try to play my strongest team in each round now. I think we were depending on our previous form in group stages in the Champions League this year. We were making changes each year and it was working fine for us because our home record was so good. But we threw it away against Basel in the home game and were unlucky against Benfica. That caught us short, to be honest with you, and we suffered for it."
Patrice Evra has been left behind in Manchester, however, as a consequence of his confrontation with Liverpool, and in particular Luis Suárez, on Saturday. "We have rested Patrice because I think it was an emotional weekend for him and it was the right thing to do," his manager said.
United's fall from European grace is relative, of course. Compared with Ajax, who have not reached the quarter-finals of any European competition since 2003 and remain distracted by Johan Cruyff's legal dispute with the board over their proposed appointment of Louis van Gaal as chief executive, this season's European campaign appears a mere detour.
There was audible disapproval when Frank de Boer, the Ajax coach, said his coveted Danish midfielder, Christian Eriksen, could "play for a big team like Manchester United in the future". De Boer was asked how sad it was that Ajax could not be mentioned in such terms.
"You just have to look at the facts," he replied. "Look at the difference in turnover between the clubs and the difference in revenue from TV contracts there is between England and the Netherlands.We lose our big players now to the bigger leagues around the age of 23. I left here at 28. I would tell any player here that it is better to stay until you are 25 years old because you learn a lot about football and you are a more stable player who is able to play in the bigger leagues. We have a very talented youth department, though, and the way we develop players gives me a good feeling for the future."
Ajax (4-2-3-1, probable): Vermeer; Anita, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Boilesen; Eriksen, Aissati; Sulejmani, De Jong, Ebecilio; Bulykin.
Manchester United (4-3-2-1, probable): De Gea; R da Silva, Evans, Ferdinand, F da Silva; Cleverley, Scholes, Carrick; Welbeck, Young; Rooney.
Referee G Rocchi (Italy).
TV: Channel 5, kick-off 6pm