Perhaps the most galling aspect of Manchester United‘s elimination from the Champions League is that, two years after comfortably beating them in the Europa League final, Ajax are the side Ole Gunnar Solskjær wants his United to be.
There was a certain asymmetry to the two games on Tuesday night. United, given top billing on BT Sport, were quietly ushered out of the door to this exclusive footballing club, much like Homer Simpson when he, having been banned from Moe’s for life, tries to enter a fancy restaurant.
Barcelona asked United to leave and Solskjær, like Homer, whimpered a ‘yes’ in response.
Ajax, however, toppled another giant. United hoped for a miracle against Barcelona. Ajax didn’t need one against Juventus. Just like in their quarter-final scalp of Real Madrid, they were simply much, much better.
For United fans, the image of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young wandering out onto the Camp Nou was unnerving.
Down 1-0 from the first leg, they needed to be brave and clinical. In truth, they were anything but. Marcus Rashford spurned a gilt-edged chance after 30 seconds. Sent scuttling through on the Barca goal, the 21-year-old lifted his effort onto the crossbar when he should have, at least, tested Marc-André ter Stegen.
United’s vibrant start soon made way for the more familiar sight of Barca domination. Then the mistakes came. VAR may have – correctly – spared Fred from conceding a 10th-minute penalty but, by that stage, the tide had turned.
Six minutes later, Young failed to clear the ball and then inexplicably lunged in on Lionel Messi.
Lionel Messi, breaking ankles and bamboozling defenders 😰
Unplayable 🤩 pic.twitter.com/PUa1vqG3dQ
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 17, 2019
Fred, failing to heed the warning, decided he should jump into a tackle on the Argentine. The result was a nutmeg on the Brazilian and the goal we have seen Messi score countless times before; an unerring left-footed shot into the far corner.
David de Gea had no chance but the Spaniard virtually sealed United’s misery when he allowed Messi’s timid effort slither underneath him four minutes later.
To rub salt into the wounds, former Liverpool favourite Philippe Coutinho broke out his No.1 hit, swivelling away from a wearying Smalling before sending his trademark missile into the top corner.
United were feeble over the two legs. Without a shot on target at Old Trafford, an error-strewn display at the Camp Nou laid bare the gulf between them and Europe’s elite. There was relief for Barca, of course. This is the first time they’ve reached the semi-finals since 2015.
For Ajax, it’s been much longer. The four-time European champions have reached the last four for the first time since 1997. That year, they were denied a third consecutive appearance in the final by the side who took their crown in ’96: Juventus (United also made it to the semis in ’97).
Outclassed by the Italians then, the Ajax of 2019 simply had too much hardiness, tactical nous and technical dexterity for Serie A’s superpower. In both legs, Erik ten Hag’s side went behind to a powerful Cristiano Ronaldo header but delivered an emphatic response.
In the second half, the ambitious Amsterdam outfit found their fluid rhythm and flooded Juve’s half with great abandon. Hakim Ziyech and van de Beek both missed chances before de Ligt, their fearless 19-year-old captain, rose highest to head past Wojciech Szczęsny.
Ajax continue to be a breath of fresh air. They ended Real’s reign, postponed Ronaldo’s dream of lifting the European Cup for the sixth time with a third different club and while an inevitable exodus of talent will deny them another golden era, their trajectory in relation to United’s since that Europa League final validates a philosophy built on developing youth and buying smart.
United had five of their academy graduates in the squad at the Camp Nou; Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira.
That’s an admirable contingent but the club have also hamstrung themselves with a string of questionable moves in the transfer market. Romelu Lukaku cost £75million but wasn’t deemed worthy of a place in the line-up. Fred, a £50million purchase from Shakhtar Donetsk, continues to befuddle with his over-zealous, playground approach to playing in midfield.
Lukaku took his place on the bench alongside Alexis Sánchez, the £500,000-a-week man who seems destined for the exit door in the summer. Nemanja Matić, whose big-game mentality was a driving factor in his £40million switch from Chelsea, was an unused substitute.
Young has taken much of the criticism during United’s recent Champions League outings. It’s true that Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona effectively ended his career at this level but Solskjær’s stand-in captain will be 34 in the summer.
He wasn’t great but he also isn’t the problem. United’s myopic recruitment drive under Ed Woodward has left them short in a number of key areas.
Ajax, in stark contrast, since losing to United in 2017, have bought wisely, supplementing their burgeoning starlets with the street-smart Dušan Tadić in attack, versatile Targaryen lookalike Daley Blind and Nicolás Taglifico, the adventurous Argentine who has been a revelation at left-back. Combined they cost less than £30million yet have proven vital on this Champions League run.
The Dutch club have, like United, been through managerial turmoil. After Peter Bosz’s departure, Marcel Keizer lasted 24 games before ten Hag – who drew inspiration from working alongside Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich – was appointed.
His arrival, coupled with a steadfast belief in a particular way of playing, has lifted Ajax to new heights.
United, meanwhile, are suffering one hell of a hangover from the Solskjær honeymoon. The Camp Nou was the scene of the Norwegian’s greatest triumph but this week provided the harrowing backdrop to the realisation of what lies ahead.
The United rebuild that proved too much for The Chosen One and The Special One. Oh, and Louis van Gaal, but we don’t like to talk about him.