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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012

Man United, Man City notch Europa League victories


LONDON — If Manchester United had a superiority complex about playing in the Europa League, it didn't show against Ajax.

The English champions signaled their intention to take the continent's second-tier competition seriously as a virtually full-strength team beat Ajax 2-0 on Thursday, moving to the brink of the last 16 ahead of next week's second legs.

It was a mightily satisfactory night for United's neighbor and Premier League title rival Manchester City, too.

Consigned to the Europa League like United after finishing third in its Champions League group, City rallied to a 2-1 victory at defending champion Porto thanks to Sergio Aguero's late winner and will be heavy favorite to advance given its strong home form this season.

The match was marred, however, by alleged racial abuse of City's black players, with striker Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure telling City they heard abusive chants from the crowd. The club said it has informed UEFA's matchday official of the club's intention to make a complaint.

Atletico Madrid, the 2010 winners, and fellow Spanish team Valencia claimed away wins at Lazio (3-1) and Stoke (1-0), respectively, to put themselves in good positions after the first leg.

Colombia striker Radamel Falcao scored twice for Atletico to make it 22 goals in his last 21 games in the Europa League, having helped fire Porto to the trophy last season.

Ukraine team Metalist Kharkiv was the night's biggest winner, thrashing Salzburg 4-0 after opening the scoring after 20 seconds, while German title contender Schalke drew 1-1 at Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic.

The presence of United and City has given the Europa League a welcome shot in the arm this season and England's leading two clubs are expected to go deep in the competition, especially after starting with wins.

England winger Ashley Young and Mexico striker Javier Hernandez scored in a vibrant second-half display by United as the team celebrated its first European match outside the Champions League in 17 years with an easy win.

Ajax and United have rich pedigrees — they have been crowned European champions seven times between them — but while the Dutch team has lost its influence in Europe in recent years, United remain one of the world's biggest clubs and were worthy winners in the end after starting sluggishly.

"I'm delighted with the scoreline," said United manager Alex Ferguson, who lost winger Antonio Valencia to a hamstring injury that will keep him out for a month.

"We didn't hit any great heights but we improved in the second half and probably deserved to win it."

The Europa League — or its forerunner the UEFA Cup — is the only major competition Ferguson has yet to win at United.

City, meanwhile, is desperate for silverware to justify the heavy spending of its wealthy Abu Dhabi owners since 2008, and has only the Premier League and Europa left to compete in this season.

Roberto Mancini's team fell behind to a close-range finish by Silvestre Varela in the 27th but bounced back well to inflict a rare home loss on Porto.

An own goal by Alvaro Pereira leveled the match and Aguero tapped in from Yaya Toure's pass in the 85th, seven minutes after coming on as a substitute.

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