Manchester United can earn advancement to the knock-out stages of the UEFA Champions League if they are able to emerge victorious on Wednesday night when they travel to Portugal to take on SC Braga. The two sides met a fortnight ago on Matchday 3 when the Red Devils came back from an 0-2 deficit at Old Trafford to snatch a 3-2 win thanks to a Javier Hernandez's brace -- the second goal was a winning header in the 75th minute delivered from a delicious Tom Cleverley cross. The challenge will be a formidable one for United at Estadio Municipal de Braga as the Portuguese side have slayed the last four English foes they've faced on home soil.
Form Guide: United moved to top of the Premier League table last weekend after their 2-1 defeat of Arsenal and after Chelsea dropped points at Swansea City. The Blues trail the Red Devils by a point. In games that anybody actually cares about (league and European ones), Sir Alex Ferguson's side has won six successive games. They currently top their Champions League group with a perfect record from three fixtures.
Team News: Chris Smalling is questionable but he's nearing a return. He's unlikely to feature, even if available. Captain Nemanja Vidic, defender Phil Jones, and playmaker Shinji Kagawa are unavailable as well.
Form Guide: Braga currently sit third in the Portuguese Liga table as they trail joint-leaders FC Borto and Benfica by three points. Since their trip to the 'Theatre of Dreams', Jose Peseiro's side have won their two league matches. They currently sit third in Group H of the Champions League with three points from three matches.
Team News: No reported injuries.
United: There will be changes from the side that took on Arsenal at the weekend. How do I know this? Because Sir Alex said so:
"The game in Braga will give me a chance to utilise my squad. I'll be making some changes. If we can get the win it's better, but we want to make sure we qualify first. If we do, it gives me options to utilise [Chris] Smalling and [Phil] Jones. Then we can make sure that [Rio] Ferdinand is fresh for all these games. I won't have to worry about playing him Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday. That's an important issue. I don't expect [Nemanja] Vidic to be back until Christmas so it adds back-up in that respect."
- Ferguson | Source: this Sky Sports report
With Anders Lindegaard's recent injury, David de Gea has been preferred in goal as of late but either is possible for this match now that both appear to be fully fit. Ferguson's comments about Rio suggests the 33-year-old defender will start and probably alongside Jonny Evans at center-back. Michael Carrick, after his difficult time in defense versus Braga last time, and youngster Scott Wootton are not likely to give Rio nor Evans a rest. Rafael, who has been heavily used these past few months, is almost certain to start at right-back but winger Antonio Valencia is possible to make a surprise start. Alexander Buttner had difficulties against Braga as well the last time out so Patrice Evra may not get a rest for this tie at left-back.
Ferguson has spoke lately of his desire to get Anderson more games and this is a match he seems probable to start. Alongside him could be any of
Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, or Cleverley in midfield. If a diamond is used, expect to see Wayne Rooney at the tip of the it ahead of three central-midfielders. If a winger system is used, then Valencia and Nani are in contention to start on the right while Nani, Ashley Young, and Danny Welbeck are possible on the left. Up front, the in-form Chicharito seems like a strong candidate to start and any of Welbeck, Rooney, or Robin van Persie could partner him. It's a bit of guessing game to ponder on what changes Ferguson will make.
*(update: Tuesday 8:00pm GMT) -- Scholes did not travel to Braga due to the simple purpose of giving the 37-year-old some rest while Fletcher also stayed back in England due to a cold. (20-man United travel squad). Ferguson further offered these quotes after the original publishing of this preview:
"My team selection for Braga will reflect the game we play afterwards, Aston Villa away, so I’ll change the squad around. Think, for example, about the midfield options I’ve got. This is an area where some people say we’re weak but I’ve got Darren Fletcher coming back from illness, Tom Cleverley developing as a player, young Nick Powell improving, Anderson back fit and looking terrific, plus Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. I’ve got heaps of midfield options now. In the wide positions I’ve got Ashley Young fit again, Nani and Antonio Valencia. Then I’ve got the strikers. My area of worry for a long time now has been the back four. I haven’t had great options so far this season in defence. There’ll be an option with Alexander Buttner – that’s maybe the one that will definitely happen. I’ll need to see how we are in terms of a centre-back pairing for that game. But away from home in Europe you really do need a bit of experience so it’s likely that it will still be Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. "At right-back, Rafael’s fit and his form this season has been absolutely fantastic. So I’ll probably have the same or similar back four but I’ll make changes in midfield and up front."
- Ferguson | Source: ManUtd.com
Braga: For Peseiro, his first-choice XI has been revolving as of late. Beto is his No.1 and should be between the posts. In central-defense, the trio of Douglao, Nuno Coelho, and Paulo Vinicius are in contention for two spots. At left-back, Elderson appears probable to start but Ismaily is possible. At right-back, one of Leandro Salino or Carneiro Wanderson is likely to start.
In Braga's 4-2-3-1, Custudio and Hugo Viana are first-choice in the double-pivot. In the attacking-midfield band, Alan is nearly certain to start after his tremendous performance on the right while the likes of Ruben Micael, Ruben Amorin, and Mossoro are in contention for two of the other spots. The in-form Eder is the No.9.
* A review of Braga's basics: Peseiro is brave with his attacking 4-2-3-1 system-- as evidenced by being a rare side to have a go at United while at Old Trafford -- and he will instruct his side to keep possession, be bold in attack, and to press United when possession is lost. He certainly is not in awe of the Red Devils and he had this to say after our last match-up:
"We intimidated our opponent and put them back on the defensive."
- Peseiro | Source: UEFA.com
Braga's full-backs tend to surge forward for overlapping runs, Custodio balances the team's shape by sitting deep in midfield, while Viana adds a vertical dimension to the double-pivot with both his long-range passing ability and his willingness to join the attack. Alan is industrious on the right flank while the other two attacking-midfielders in the band of three tend to interchange. Eder is mobile up front and will work the channels while his goal-scoring as of late hints at him being clinical with his chances as well. (A more detailed Braga scouting report -- it was written, though, prior to the past match-up between these two sides).
* Which system will United use?: Ferguson likely has a good idea on what to expect from Braga but what can we expect from United? The manager opted for a diamond system in the reverse fixture and as this shape tends to be, it was exposed in the wide areas as Braga overran United on the flanks. By half-time, Ferguson switched from a diamond system to one with wingers in a 4-4-1-1ish shape and the Red Devils were much improved. What shape will United be deployed in on Wednesday night?
Because of United's troubles in the last meeting, a diamond seems unlikely. Ferguson could opt for either a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system -- like the one he used last weekend versus Arsenal -- or he could elect to use a slightly more conservative 4-1-4-1 shape -- like the one used at Stamford Bridge two weekends ago against Chelsea.
Braga have good technical ability and they can threaten you with pace as well. Ferguson could elect to sit back a bit, let their center-backs have time on the ball, close down in midfield, and then look to break in the wide areas when possession is won and when their full-backs are caught out too high. United are very comfortable playing this way and this could be the pragmatic approach away from home.
KO: 7:45pm GMT (U.K.), 2:45pm EST (U.S.A.) | Estadio Municipal de Braga
Live TV: Sky Sports 4 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Florian Meyer (Germany)
Odds: Braga 23/10, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 5/4