Somewhat predictably, two teams with such rich footballing pedigree took time to size each other up. Short passing and an emphasis on keeping possession were key features in the game's opening stages; shots on targets and goalmouth action were not.
Indeed, it took until the 18th minute for either goalkeeper to be forced into making anything that even resembled a save, and even then it was unclear if Dico Koppers' tame effort was a shot or a cross.
Wayne Rooney's ambitious chip a minute later also proved easy pickings for Ajax stopper Kenneth Vermeer, who then showed great speed and courage to dart off his line and claim the ball at Javier Hernandez's feet. Rooney's clever pass had released the Mexican, but glimpses of Rooney's creativity were fleeting in the opening period, owning largely to Ajax midfielder Ismail Aissati.
It was Toby Alderweireld, though, who denied Wayne with a vital block just before the half-hour mark, less than a minute after Ajax had threatened themselves at the other end. Ferdinand did well to head clear a dangerous cross but the ball fell to Aissati, whose volley was cleared en route to goal by Fabio.
If De Gea's first save of the night was simple, his second was sublime. Siem de Jong unleashed a bullet from 25 yards that looked destined for the top corner until the Spaniard threw himself to his left and tipped the ball around the post.
A mini aerial onslaught followed, during which Ajax slung cross after cross into the penalty area. Dmitri Bulykin headed one presentable chance over the bar but otherwise the Reds' rearguard stood firm.