The Europa Cup draw for the final 32 has not exactly been kind of the remaining English sides. Manchester United, Manchester City and Stoke City all face extremely tough opponents as the maligned tournament bares its teeth.
Ajax v Manchester United
Ajax are undergoing something of a mini-crisis at present. Their surprise exit from the Champion’s League, a struggle to maintain any consistency in the Eredivisie, and a potential exodus in the pipeline from some of their brightest prospects does not bode well for their short-term future. Full-back Gregory Van Der Wiel is playing hardball over a contract extension, their brilliant young schemer Christian Eriksen has recently flashed some ankle towards Barcelona while their imposing talismans Vertonghen and in-form Miralem Sulejmani are interesting Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.
The de Godenzonenseem to be in a permanently state of flux between potential greatness and having to start from scratch - a curse that has long hovered over the Amsterdam Arena – so on paper at least this could be an easier tie than first thought for Manchester United.
It won’t be anything of the sort however because what counts against United is the very prestige they have spent a lifetime accruing.
Were it Braga or PAOK paired with the Dutch outfit I would be tempted to have a punt on an upset. Against Fergie’s boys the very opposite applies as this encounter offers Ajax a high-profile opportunity to exorcise their demons and over-turn their recent woes.
It is a cracking tie that the under-valued Europa Cup needed and as you’re reading this a group of Five executives are presumably knocking one out in a circle wank.
For once that isn’t a dig at the media’s infatuation with the red half of Manchester. United v Ajax, with all the stylish combat it promises is a draw to be savoured.
Should there be a deficit to be over-turned a half-empty Etihad will not generate the rousing call to arms that may be required.
Porto v Manchester City
Against Napoli Manchester City were able to study at close quarters two players who are repeatedly name-checked as possible replacements for Tevez. Now they must do likewise with the incredible Hulk and just hope that he fluffs his audition unlike the destructive Lavezzi and Cavani.
If City are to hold aloft some European silverware this term they will have truly done it the hard way. First a group of death containing Bayern, Napoli and the surprisingly awful Villarreal. Now they must take on the holders of the Europa Cup in arguably the toughest tie they could have been dealt.
The trip to the Dragao will be a immensely difficult proposition should Mancini opt for the Bridges and Kolos and employ the peripheral figures in a squad that will be stretched following an onerous January schedule. While Porto are somewhat of a faded force in comparison to last year they still have the capacity to rip teams apart.
My concern is that the second leg kicks off at 5pm. Should there be a deficit to be over-turned a half-empty Etihad will not generate the rousing call to arms that may be required.
Stoke City v Valencia
Stoke’s reward for their genuine application in a maligned tournament is a pairing with the current leaders of ‘the rest of La Liga’. Which as rewards go is up there with a sharp hard smackacross the chops. Even so it lends itself to a culture shock cliché more than any other of their continental opponents thus far. The stylish Valencianistas won’t like it ‘up em’ on a cold February night at the Britannia and though the Spaniards’ quality is not in doubt their fortitude will certainly be tested to the hilt.
The passing and attacking verve in Pulis’s side is routinely under-estimated and let’s not forget their cup pedigree and nous from last year’s F.A Cup run. But it is hard to see them progressing past a superb Valencia outfit and it is a great shame that such a arduous – seemingly insurmountable - task immediately faces them in the knock-out stages. I hope I’m wrong.