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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Vermeer: United a special game for Ajax

When Edwin van der Sar finally hung up his gloves last summer, Manchester United were not the only club in Europe left seeking a replacement for their long-established Dutch No. 1.

A trip to Amsterdam in the Europa League six days ago saw David De Gea - the goalkeeper who has more closely resembled the capricious Fabien Barthez than the consistent Van der Sar since stepping between the United sticks - line-up against Kenneth Vermeer, the man handed the unenviable task of succeeding Netherlands star Maarten Stekelenburg at Ajax.

While De Gea arrived to an £18 million fanfare, Vermeer's step up to first-choice 'keeper was significantly less ceremonious. The Amsterdam-born shot-stopper received his football education at the renowned Ajax academy, having first stepped though its doors in 1999, but for more than a decade found himself in the shadow of the 6' 5" Stekelenburg, also an alumnus of the club's youth set-up.

In August 2011, though, Vermeer's days of playing second-fiddle ended as Stekelenburg, who had recently been named the Ajax Player of the Year for his role in helping the club end their seven-year wait for Eredivisie glory, was sold to Roma for around €6 million. There were some murmurs of doubt among Ajax fans and the media about whether Vermeer would be able to fill the gloves of his compatriot, but manager Frank de Boer stated ahead of Stekelenburg's departure: "Should Maarten leave, Kenneth Vermeer is 100% sure my first 'keeper."

De Boer was true to his word and, having only previously featured in 57 matches over six seasons, Vermeer has turned out 28 times so far in 2011-12. It has been a somewhat underwhelming campaign for Ajax, floundering in their attempts to retain their domestic title, while last week's Europa League first leg against United provided a couple of moments to forget for Vermeer. But despite recent travails, the Dutch shot-stopper is still relishing being his side's first choice at last. "I was waiting for this moment for about five years and obviously with Maarten leaving it was my chance to become the No. 1," Vermeer tells ESPNsoccernet. "I sometimes watch the Roma games on television and occasionally we speak with each other, but not all that often. I am really enjoying playing regularly, but clearly it has been hard times for us this season. The team is not working the way we want to. We were so used to winning most of the games, but recently we've lost some games and drawn some games that we wouldn't expect to, which has been disappointing."

The reigning Dutch champions are currently sixth in the Eredivisie table and, though the 2-0 Europa League defeat to United was sandwiched by a pair of wins against NAC Breda and NEC, they had only won one in seven prior to that. Progress in Europe now appears unlikely, with Ajax needing to overturn a two-goal deficit at Old Trafford, but Vermeer believes the trip to Manchester should bring the best out of his team-mates.

"It's a special tie for us," Vermeer says. "We played in the Champions League earlier this season and you can feel the players want to give that little bit more than usual on those big European nights. We will approach the game with confidence knowing we played in a difficult Champions League group with Real Madrid and Lyon this season - we love playing in those matches. I was glad to be drawn against Manchester United. Maybe you want to play them a little later on in the tournament, but nothing is impossible and we will enjoy the challenge.

"Manchester United have a team full of good players. We are not worried about anyone in particular, but you have someone like Wayne Rooney - who has a lot of quality - or Ryan Giggs, who is a big player with excellent technique. Giggs has so much experience of playing at the highest level and that he is still playing for Manchester United at his age is really admirable. Then there is Sir Alex Ferguson. He has been their manager for 25 years - who else in football could say that? I think he's one of the best coaches in the world."

There appears to be a feeling of kinship between Ferguson and those at Ajax because of their shared philosophy regarding the development and blooding of youngsters. The number of United youth-teamers progressing to the first-team has diminished in recent years, but Ajax are still consistently seeing large numbers of players make the transition. Five of the 14 Red Devils players to feature in last week's Europa League encounter played for the club at youth level; De Boer fielded eight former Jong Ajax players from the start and brought on three more, finishing the game with ten academy graduates on show.

Even after conquering European football's biggest mountain when beating AC Milan to claim the Champions League in 1995, Ajax's biggest challenge was keeping hold of their players: the likes of Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids left soon after and it was not long before the team had been completely disbanded. Fast forward 17 years and the lure of bigger European leagues and bigger paydays is now an even bigger hindrance to Ajax's hopes of becoming major players on the continent again.

De Boer himself was one of those 1995 Champions League winners to jump ship when he signed for Barcelona in 1998 along with brother Ronald, but he has nonetheless been compelled to embrace Ajax's traditional approach and strive to preserve its legacy. A lack of financial clout has forced De Boer's hand to an extent, though Vermeer believes the former Netherlands captain's roots in Amsterdam have inspired him to turn to youth in a bid to recapture former glories.

"For Ajax it has been normal over the years to have so many players from the academy," Vermeer explains. "I think it is difficult for the club to buy expensive big-name players at the moment so I think the young players are getting a good chance to play for the first-team. You have players like Christian Eriksen and then Vurnon Anita, who is playing well at the moment in the right-back position - there are a lot of good young players.

"In the last couple of months there have been four or five players have made their debuts. They get a chance and they work hard for it. He [De Boer] likes to play the way Ajax used to play, with not too many long balls. He is important because he knows how Ajax have historically played and how the fans want Ajax to play. It is difficult to play like those great teams and win so many trophies, but like now most of the players back then came through the academy and it's not impossible."


Kenneth Vermeer wears Sells goalkeeper gloves - www.sellsgoalkeeperproducts.com

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