* Update: Here is the the latest team news from Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match press conference. Rio Ferdinand did not travel with the squad to Lisbon.
Manchester United begin a new UEFA Champions League campaign on Wednesday when they travel to Lisbon to clash with SL Benfica for a group stage tie. These two clubs famously met at Wembley in 1968 during the European Cup final -- manager Sir Matt Busby and captain Sir Bobby Charlton led the Reds to their first conquering of Europe in a 4-1 extra time victory over a Benfica side that featured the great Eusebio. In recent times, United have met Benfica in the group stages of Champions League in both the 2005/06 and 2006/07 competitions. In this season's edition of the competition, these two sides are the favorites to advance from Group C. Thus, this away tie for United is anticipated to be their most difficult one in group stage play.
The English champions and European runners-up come into the match in tremendous form. So far in this young season, United top the table once again in England with the maximum 12 points in four matches -- and with an impressive 18 goals scored and only 3 conceded. Talisman Wayne Rooney is arguably in the form of his life with 8 goals and an assist. However, it could be argued that most intriguing story plot has been the injection of youth into the squad. The sides that demolished north London, in impressive 8-2 and 3-0 results over Arsenal FC and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, had an average age of just 23-years-old in the starting XI. The Reds appear to be a club for both the now and future.
Injuries are a slight concern for the club at the moment, especially in defense. Captain Nemanja Vidic is out due to a calf injury while right-back Rafael is also out due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. During this past Saturday's 5-0 away victory at Bolton, United also lost midfielder Tom Cleverley to ligament damage in his ankle. Furthermore in that same game, center-back Jonny Evans was substituted off after receiving a knock on his hip and left-back Patrice Evra suffered a knock as well -- the status of each is uncertain for Wednesday.
After four Primeira Liga matches, Benfica come into this match unbeaten and second in the table. The Portuguese side defeated Trabzonspor by a 3-1 aggregate and FC Twente by a 5-3 aggregate to earn advancement into the Champions League group stages. Despite the defeat by United in 1968, Benfica have a proud history in Europe -- they twice have been the champions of Europe in both 1961 and 1962. During last season's campaign, they failed to advance from the group stages of the Champions League. However, they did advance to the semi-final of the Europa League before being upset by fellow Primeira Liga side Braga. Benfica is the 2nd-seeded club in Group C so they will be favored to improve on their performance from last season by advancing to the knock-out stages.
Benfica has suffered the losses of Angel di Maria, Ramires, David Luiz, and Fabio Coentrao in recent seasons and squad turnover has been high -- fourteen members of this season's Champions League squad are either new signings or youth players that earned their way to the first-team. However, new squad members such as Nolito (Barcelona), Axel Witsel (Standard Liege), Ezequiel Garay (Real Madrid), and Artur (Braga) have walked into the club this summer and provided key contributions already. Each likely will feature prominently for Benfica during Wednesday's night match.
Indications are that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson plans to rotate his squad for this match after playing a league match this past Saturday and ahead of Sunday's clash with league title-rival Chelsea FC. However, the legendary boss is certainly taking this opening European tie seriously:
"The opening game is the toughest for us. Benfica are always a handful and we expect a difficult game. I watched a couple of their games away from home last season and they were absolutely brilliant. I think the hardest part for us will be picking the midfield in that particular game. That area will be the biggest challenge. They operate with three midfield players in there. They don't play anyone off the front. They play three actual midfield players so we'll have to have a look at that. My team in Lisbon might be different on an issue of experience. We've also got Darren Fletcher back fit. He's looking good and did well with Scotland last week. I think we'll need to have more experience in the game. The important thing is to qualify. Benfica away from home is the kind of the game you have to respect." -Sir Alex Feguson
With the recent use of youth, this provides more evidence that the squad will be rotated since many of the more experienced players have been on the bench in recent weeks. Ferguson's comments also hint at the possibility of a 4-3-3 shape, something that he done often in the past for away games in Europe.
In goal, expect to see No 1 David De Gea, but backup Anders Lindegaard is a possibility as well to deputise. If Evans and Evra are out due to the knocks they suffered on Saturday, then United is left only four healthy defenders -- Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Fabio -- and selection would be quite simple. However, it is possible that Ferdinand, who recently returned from injury, would rest with Chelsea in mind if Evans is recovered. If Ferguson does elect to play three in the center of the park, then Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, and Michael Carrick may be the likeliest trio of candidates to start. Anderson would be a possibility as well in his return to Portugal but he has started every game thus far and he may be rested for Chelsea. Park Ji-Sung is almost certain to start and most likely on one of the flanks, although an advanced central midfield role is possible as well if United play with three in the center. In-form Ashley Young and Portuguese international Nani are the other likely candidates to start on the flanks. Antonio Valencia is available for selection but questions remain whether he is fit enough to start a match of this importance yet. Up front, the infrequently used Dimitar Berbatov is likely to start but less likely so if United play in a 4-3-3 shape. Despite his tremendous form, Wayne Rooney may begin on the bench due to heavy minutes logged recently for both club and country. If this happens, expect him to be a late-game substitute if United are in need of a goal. Michael Owen and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) are possibilities to start as well.
Project Benfica's lineup is a difficult task because of the uncertainty of manager Jorge Jesus' tactics. The Benfica boss recently had this to say about Wednesday's match:
"We want to be stronger tactically, if we manage that, we will balance out the match. There are three points on the table but in the Champions League every single point is important. We have to approach this game differently in terms of tactics and objectives. United is one of the best in Europe and has top players but we also have them." -Jorge Jesus
Unless Jesus is purposely being coy, this hints that he may be get away from his attack-minded 4-4-2 diamond shape and play for a draw. His defense and holding midfielder appear to be obvious selections. Expect to see Artur between the posts with Luisao and Garay as the center-back pairing. Emerson is the expected left-back and Maxi Pereira is the first-choice right-back. Javi Garcia will shield the defense as the holding midfielder.
The other two possible shapes that Jesus may use is an attacking 4-3-3 or or a defensive 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 hybrid shape. No matter the tactics, Oscar Cardozo is expected to the fulcrum in attack up front. If he has a player playing withdrawn from him in a 4-4-2 diamond or in a defensive 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 hybrid, either Javier Saviola or Pablo Aimar are possible in this role. If Cardozo is flanked in attack in a 4-3-3, expect to see Nolito on the right and Nicolas Gaitan on the left. Witsel is almost certainly to start somewhere in the center of the park.
Because the tactics are so uncertain for both sides, projecting lineups may be a futile exercise. Thus, this discussion above may be the best guide ahead of Wednesday's match. Nonetheless, here is a lineup projection diagram:
Typically in this section of our previews, I provide specific tactical keys to keep an eye out on for during the match. However, with so much uncertainty with the possible lineups and tactics, it doesn't make sense to go into great detail. But here is what I'll be looking for when lineups are announced:
* If United play in a 4-4-2 shape, then I will be concerned with how they will deal with the Benfica players that like to operate between the lines -- specifically Aimar or Saviola. In addition, if Rooney starts in this shape, his match-up with Javi Garcia will be a key one to watch.
* Emerson vs United's wide right player: In our Q&A with fansite Planet Benfica, their writers felt that Emerson is a threat going forward but is vulnerable in defense. If Park is deployed on the right, he is as good as anyone in the world in tracking marauding full-backs. The Korean is also very intelligent with his positioning and he has been lethal over the years in getting behind attacking full-backs when United hit on the counter. Whether it is Park or possibly Nani, their ability to deal with Emerson's marauding runs will be important -- so will the need to be opportunistic if the Brazilian right-back's positioning is suspect.
* If United play in a 4-3-3, who will be the fulcrum in attack? Berbatov has struggled as a lone striker during his time at United and this is clearly evident when examining his poor goal-scoring rate in Europe -- a competition where United use this shape most often. If Ferguson does use this shape with the Bulgarian striker leading the line, look to see if the attack sputters. If Berbatov can play well in this possible role, he may be able to carve out a small niche for himself in United's less glamourous group stage ties -- thus, he could find a way to get more time on the pitch after recently being relegated to fourth in the United pecking role at striker.
Odds: Benfica 16/5, Draw 13/5, Manchester United 17/20
Prediction: Benfica 1-2 Manchester United
Q&A with Benfica fansite: Planet Benfica