LONDON (Reuters) - 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 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 to Basel.
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 soon.”
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 Thursday.
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 soccer 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 Telegraph.
“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 before.
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 with Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy scoring.
Editing by John Mehaffey