By Mark Young
It has almost been four months since Manchester United were taken apart, bit by bit by Barcelona in the Champions League final at Wembley. This week the race to Munich starts and United are aiming to go one step further this time around.
The destination is Portugal and United kick off with what seems on paper to be the hardest game in a fairly straight forward group. The group starts away at Benfica and if there was a place where points would be dropped it could be there but in the kind of form that the Red’s have started the season, you never know.
The other two competitors in group C are Basel of Switzerland and FC Oțelul Galați of Romania. They are hardly tough places to go. United and Benfica will both be expecting to reach the second round but there is still work to do. The group is not played on paper.
Benfica are currently unbeaten in the Portuguese league with three wins and a draw. They are two points behind FC Porto who have won all four of their games. Benfica’s latest points came in a 2-1 home win against Vitória de Guimarães on Saturday night. Two Óscar Cardozo penalties saw Guimarães off and gave the home team confidence going into their clash against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
Benfica started that game in a 4-4-2 formation with Cardozo and Saviola starting up top. The creative boots were handed to summer signing Alex Witsel. The referee gave three penalties within the match and the Paraguayan, Cardozo took all three. Two were scored and one hit the bar. One player who didn’t play was Pablo Aimar, the Argentinean playmaker who seems like he has been around for ages. He is expected to play against United.
After the summer loss of Fábio Coentrão to Real Madrid, the positive start to the season will give the fans belief. They have made some good signings in Witsel, Ezequiel Garay from Real, Nolito from Barcelona and Bruno Cesar from Brazilian club Corinthians. Add to that the experienced strikers Saviola and Cardozo, Aimar and Luisão at centre back, the team should be competing for the league at home. Taking the momentum away from Porto will be the problem. They also signed Capdevila from Villarreal but has been left out of the Champions League squad.
Team Selection Thoughts
Man United, once again have selection headaches, but not in a bad way. Tom Cleverley is out for four weeks after his foot ligament injury he picked up from a Kevin Davies tackle on Saturday and Danny Welbeck is still not 100% fit. The problem for Ferguson is who he rests and who he plays with the titanic clash at home to Chelsea coming up on Sunday afternoon.
The young side that has been playing in the league has done magnificently well so far but Ferguson will want to keep them fresh for Sunday’s encounter. Ji Sung Park and Antonio Valencia could return on the wings and to change the whole midfield, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher could all be vying for places. Chris Smalling should play after missing out on Saturday. Evans and Evra picked up knocks, however the pair have travelled to Portugal unlike Rio Ferdinand. Three games in eight days at this stage of Ferdinand’s career maybe one game too many for the former England captain. He is being sensibly being managed. Fabio da Silva could play at left or right back and there could even be a spot for Dimitar Berbatov who has been the number one bench warmer this season.
Sir Alex favoured a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation for away fixtures in last season’s Champions League, which was a move away from 4-3-3/4-5-1. If the latter formation is preferred Rooney could find himself as the lone striker unless the manager believes the amount of minutes he has under his belt in recent weeks is too much going into the important game at the weekend. Giggs, Carrick and Fletcher could play, Park could also fill a central role and even Anderson could keep his place ahead of Sunday’s encounter.
Here, at Sretford End Arising we spoke to Planet Benfica and asked their thoughts on Wednesday’s game:
The (inevitable) sale of Coentrão was certainly a talking point. After losing the likes of Ramires, di María and David Luiz within a year, Coentrão’s move to Real Madrid was another big loss to the side.
Capdevila was also a good signing at the time but has oddly been left out from the Champions League squad.
With the Champions League campaign set to begin in July, getting rid of key players would always hurt the side. But as you can see from the transfer list, we made numerous signings. Players such as Nolito, Witsel, Garay and goalkeeper Artur have pretty much gone straight into the first eleven and have all put them very good initial performances for the club. Artur looks solid between the posts in comparison to our previous keeper Roberto, Nolito scored 5 in 5 whilst Witsel has been pivotal in midfield, both supporting the attack and aiding Javi Garcia to provide cover for the defence. Not to mention the couple of goals he grabbed in the Champions League play offs against Twente. Already a fan favourite the Belgian.
Pablo Aimar, the midfield maestro will be key in the play making role and seems to have found better fitness then recent season, where he is actually able to complete the 90 minutes without much problems. His vision and experience will be vital for the game on Wednesday.
Cardozo has a love-hate relationship with fans, something which he does not deserve. Not because of lazy like attitude in the pitch but because his goal scoring record for the club speaks for itself, he isn’t your everyday striker. And also has a mean left foot!
Coming from a disappointing season where we only managed to win the League Cup, hopes are very high amongst the Benfica fans after the amount of investment which has been made on new signings. Winning the league is definitely a priority over any other competition Benfica are involved in, something which has been reiterated by our manager and whose views are also shared by the fans alike.
Three Key Battles
Luisão vs. Wayne Rooney
The England man should start against the Portuguese and in the form he is in, he is ready to cause havoc. Luisão is Benfica’s captain and he will come up against one of his biggest tests of the season on Wednesday. The Brazilian has the potential to switch off at times and if he does against United, Rooney and whoever he plays up front with, be it Hernandez or Berbatov or even on his own, will be ready to pounce.
Óscar Cardozo vs. Phil Jones
It seems that Phil Jones is more than ready to make his European debut for the Red Devil’s. He is up against a player who seems to score goals for fun for Benfica but never quite gets the recognition he deserves. Jones has been very impressive so far this season and will be confident of handling the Paraguayan.
Pablo Aimar vs. Darren Fletcher
The midfield maestro that is Pablo Aimar has finally found some fitness and some form after a nightmare spell with injuries. This could be Darren Fletcher’s first appearance since recovering from a virus and after two games for Scotland last week he could be ready for a starting berth. Fletcher buzzes around the pitch and is usually full of energy and running. He is going to have to be if he is to keep Aimar quiet. He is the hub of all things good for Benfica and it could be a tough evening for the Scot if Aimar continues his early season form.
It is a strange game in the fact that it is very hard to fathom out what kind of formation’s and teams both of these teams will play. This fixture has historic connotations and United were also knocked out at the Champions League group stage in Portugal by Benfica. Since then, United have qualified with relative ease and there should be no problem with both teams once again.
Benfica away from home is the hardest game of United’s six to play in the group stage. Even if United rest players they should still come away from Portugal with at least a point. United’s strength in the Champions League last season was the defensive record in which they only conceded once in the group stage. Both teams go into Wednesday with confidence but Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will fancy their chances.
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