Teams: Benfica v Manchester United Venue: Stadium of Light Competition: UEFA Champions League Last Match: Bolton 0 – 5 Man United Kick Off: 19 45 on TV on ITV
Following United’s demolition of domestic challengers in the Premier League, Sir Alex and his men will face a different challenge tonight against strong Portuguese opposition in the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. On the back of a simply stunning victory at The Reebok, the Reds are sure to be in good spirits as they look to start this new Champions League campaign in a positive manner.
Seeing as our group is filled by Benfica, Basel and Otelu Galati, this match is by far and away the most challenging fixture we will face at this stage and must not be underestimated. Benfica are a very strong side, particularly at home, with a strong core to their team; with the likes of Garay, Witsel, Aimar and Cardozo forming the heart of their team.
Therefore, Sir Alex will be keen to field a strong side which is capable of setting the foundations for a solid and uneventful progression to the knock-out stages. As he has stressed in previous campaigns, his main priority is to get to the ten point mark, as soon as possible, and guarantee a place in the latter stages.
With Benfica likely to be our main contender for the top spot, Sir Alex will most certainly not want to give them a head start by fielding a totally changed side but he may well want to make changes considering our important Premier League fixture against Chelsea this Sunday, leaving us in the slightly surreal scenario where the senior players are coming in to replace the younger places as the reserves side.
19 Man Squad
De Gea, Lindegaard; Evans, Evra, Fabio, Jones, Smalling; Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani, Park, Valencia, Young; Berbatov, Hernandez, Owen, Rooney.
Rio Ferdinand has been left behind “as a precaution,” presumably in preparation for United’s match against Chelsea.
Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra have recovered from minor knocks to make the trip to Portugal, although the latter has an under-study in Fabio in need of games.
Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher are both back in the squad and are in contention to make their first appearances of the season.
In net, I expect David De Gea to retain his place for both the matches this week, with Anders Lindegaard coming in for next Tuesday’s match, against Leeds United, in the Carling Cup.
Ahead of him I think Fabio may make an appearance ahead of Phil Jones, who has never experienced the pressure of a Champions League away game before, at right back with the Englishman rested for Sunday. Moving along, in Rio Ferdinand’s absence, I expect Smalling and Evans to marshal the centre of defence with the energetic Patrice Evra to their left.
In midfield, I expect Nani to retain his place out wide, with Valencia very likely to come on at some point in order to give Nani a rest and to improve the Ecuadorian’s sharpness. Conversely, Ji Sung Park may well replace Ashley Young on the right as his work-rate and tenacity is invaluable in these tough European away fixtures. Most controversially, I expect both Carrick and Fletcher to return to the fold as Sir Alex opts for the experience which has rather surprisingly found itself second in the pecking order this season.
Up front, Berbatov will be looking to make his first start this season, even though his barren streak in the Champions League is now becoming rather embarrassing. Alongside him it seems unimaginable that Wayne Rooney will be rested but stranger things have happened!
Predicted Line Up
One To Watch- Pablo Aimar
One player who is sure to be at the heart of Benfica’s best moments is the attacking Argentinean midfielder, Aimar, who is enjoying a role further up the pitch since Benfica recruited the Belgian midfielder, Alex Witsel, from Standard Liege this summer. Working his magic just ahead of our centre-back’s, it will be the responsibility of our deep-lying midfielder to limit his influence and protect our young defenders because, as Sir Alex said;
“We know all about Pablo Aimar, Aimar played against us for Valencia a few years ago, [and] he is a very talented player.”
Key Clash- Oscar Cardozo v Jonny Evans
Having scored 72 goals in 109 games for Benfica, Cardozo is sure to be much tougher opposition for Evans than Kevin Davies was at the weekend. Strong in the air, quick with his feet and a set-piece specialist, Cardozo is going to be a significant threat at the Stadium of Light and Evans is going to need to continue his fine form if he is to nullify the threat of the 28 year-old Paraguay international.
Although Sir Alex may sacrifice some youthful exuberance for predictable stability in this tricky fixture, the Reds should have enough strength to overcome Benfica as long as our inexperienced defence doesn’t make any inexperienced mistakes.
Podcast #8- United v Bolton, United, Benfica, Phil Jones and Listener’s Questions
Alternatively, if you are on a mobile device, check out the eighth Can They Score podcast, released this Tuesday, HERE.