Cue the Heineken commercials, the unmistakable anthem, and the goosebumps – the Champions League is here again. To be Manchester United is to be a perennial favorite in the competition, and that’s no different this season, as United eye a fourth final in five seasons. And the first stop on the journey to next May’s final at Munich’s Allianz Arena is Lisbon, where United will do battle with Benfica.
United and Benfica are the undisputed favorites to advance from a Group C that also includes Swiss side Basel and Romanian debutants Otelul Galati, so tonight’s showdown at the Estadio da Luz represents a chance for someone to gain an early edge for top spot in the group, which (usually) means a fairly favorable round of 16 tie.
United and Benfica go back, way back. The most famous encounter between the two came in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley, with United triumphing 4-1 in extra time to become European champions for the first time.
More recently though, United and Benfica were paired together in the group stage in consecutive seasons in 2005/06 and 2006/07. In 2005, United lost 2-1 in Lisbon and won 2-1 at home, and the next year, United took the three points in both meetings, winning 1-0 away and 3-1 at home.
As a reward for finishing a distant second behind Porto last season, Benfica started their European campaign while United were still in the U.S. A 3-1 aggregate win over Trabzonspor earned them a playoff round tie against FC Twente, and following a solid 2-2 away draw in the first leg, Benfica won 3-1 at home to book their place on the 32-seat bus.
After opening their league campaign with a draw at Gil Vicente, Benfica have won three on the trot, and they find themselves in second after four matches, two points behind untied and unbeaten Porto.
Benfica lost one of their best players during the summer, as they sold highly-rated left back Fabio Coentrao to Real Madrid for 30m. However, a number of additions were made that look to be paying early dividends for Jorge Jesus’ side. They landed a couple of known names in Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay, and Spanish defender Joan Capdevila, but a lesser-known acquisition has made the biggest impact. Spanish attacker Nolito was snapped up on a free after being unable to make a real breakthrough at Barcelona, and he’s instantly proved to be quite the bargain, scoring three goals in Champions League qualifying and two more in the league.
Along with Nolito, United’s defense will have to contend with prolific Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo and Argentine attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan, who was linked with United during the summer transfer window.
With one eye on Sunday’s clash with Chelsea, we’re sure to see a little tinkering tonight by Fergie, but we’ll see a strong starting XI nonetheless.
Rio Ferdinand was left at home, which means he’s a shoo-in to start at Old Trafford on Sunday, and Nemanja Vidic is still absent, so the back line will be a youthful one again, perhaps with the exception of Patrice Evra.
Tom Cleverley won’t be available after his ankle was the victim of a poor challenge by Bolton’s Kevin Davies, so he’ll have to wait until next month for his European debut. But in his absence, United can turn to experience in the center of midfield, whether it’s Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, or Darren Fletcher, who are all due for a start. On the flanks, the duo of Ashley Young and Nani could well be rested, as Park and Antonio Valencia could be in contention to get their first starts of the season.
Up front, Wayne Rooney is due for a rest, which could free up a place for Dimitar Berbatov to finally get a good run-out after spending all of a half-hour on the pitch thus far this season.
Caution is usually the way to go in away matches in Europe, but will we see Fergie go that same route or make the most of the fine attacking form that the side is in right now?
Given that Benfica have their share of attacking talent, it’d be far more entertaining for the masses to see a wide-open game, but results, not entertainment is the name of the game, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an approach that is more about defensive tightness and offensive opportunism than being relentless and overpowering in attack like United have been thus far.
But when you’re having the kind of run United have been, there’s no harm in going with what’s been working, and even with several changes, United still have the quality to be very dangerous in attack. And with that in mind, they should attempt to – and will – take advantage of a Benfica defense that has produced only two clean sheets in nine competitive matches this season.
Score Prediction: Benfica 1-2 Manchester United
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