Manchester United host Benfica tonight at Old Trafford for an important UEFA Champions League clash. After four Group C matches, both sides are level on points but United top the group based on goal differential. A victory for either side would put them in firm control to win the group and potentially allow them to avoid the danger of drawing the likes of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and Bayern Munich for the first round of the knock-out stages. During the reverse fixture in Lisbon, a 1-1 draw was the result after goals by Oscar Cardozo and Ryan Giggs. These two clubs have history together in meeting for big European ties -- it was in 1968 at Wembley when Sir Matt Busby's United conquered a Eusebio led Benfica for the Reds' first European title.
United come into the match 2nd in the table in the Premier League and with five consecutive clean sheet victories in all competitions. Their most recent match was a 1-0 away defeat of Swansea City this past Saturday in South Wales. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's side has also reached the quarter-final of the Carling Cup as they will face Crystal Palace next week for a midweek tie.
Injuries are a concern for the club at the moment as Ferguson expressed during this pre-match press conference yesterday. Both Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans have knocks but neither is anticipated to miss the match. No update was provided on the availability of Patrice Evra nor Danny Welbeck. The former came off at Swansea on Saturday due to a knock while the latter sustained a muscle strain while on duty for England during the recent international break. Michael Owen and Tom Cleverley are out due to long-term injury while both Chris Smalling and Anderson are also expected to miss the tie due to injuries that are believed to be of a more minor nature. Rafael has been out for the entire season thus far due to a shoulder injury but his recovery appears to be going well after playing the full 90 minutes last week during a Reserves match.
Just as they are with United in Group C in Champions League, Benfica are level on points at the top of their domestic league with FC Porto -- but they trail on goal differential. The Portuguese side have not played a competitive match since their 1-1 away draw with Braga on November 6. Their most recent Champions League match was a 1-1 draw at home versus FC Basel on November 2.
Midfielder Enzo Perez is out for the match due to a knee injury. Striker Javier Saviola is likely out due to a knee as is midfielder Nemanja Matic due to a foot injury. Holding midfielder Javi Garcia has been dealing with a dead leg but he is expected to play tonight at Old Trafford.
Projecting Ferguson's selection choices -- an exercise that is even more futile due to the current injury uncertainty with numerous players. In goal, either No. 1 David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard are reasonable guesses at goalkeeper. If Evra is unavailable, expect to see Fabio deputise at left-back. At right-back, Phil Jones is certainly possible but because he has logged heavy minutes recently -- which includes England duty -- Fabio could play here if Evra is available for selection. In central defense, captain Nemanja Vidic is serving the last match of his suspension so that makes Evans, Jones, and Rio Ferdinand the likely candidates. Expect to see Evans and Ferdinand if Fergie feels both are fit. Midfield selection is influenced by the formation that Fergie decides to use and the possible limited choices he has due to injury and squad rotation. The possible choices in central midfield are Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, and to a lesser extent, Ji-Sung Park. Only Fletcher did not start four days ago versus Swansea so he perhaps is most likely to feature out of the midfield options. On the flanks, Antonio Valencia and Nani are possible on the right while Ashley Young, Nani, and Park are options are on the left. Up front, Rooney, Welbeck, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), Dimitar Berbatov are options. Because Benfica is likely to play with three players in the center of the park, a 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3/4-5-1 is most likely for United (See diagram below for lineup
For Benfica, Artur can be expected in goal and the center-back pairing is likely Luisao and Ezequiel Garay. Emerson is typically the first-choice left-back as is Maxi Pereira at right-back. If Javi Garcia is available, expect to see him a holding role ahead of the defense. Alex Witsel can be expected to play further advanced in central midfield while Pablo Aimar may play in the number ten role. Ruben Amorin played as a right-sided midfielder in the reverse fixture but he may face competition from Nolito in earning the start. Nicolas Gaitain is anticipated in a narrow role as the wide left player. Up front, Cardozo is expected to lead the attack.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
* What tactics will Fergie use?: United were off to a spectacular start at the season's beginning as their matches were often open affairs. Since the 1-6 derby disaster, Fergie has kept the side's shape more disciplined by leaving less space between the lines and in behind the defense. The quality of opponents have been far from elite but United have done well to record five consecutive clean sheets -- but perhaps at the expense of a free-flowing attack. United do not face another 'top 6' side in England until January so this match versus Benfica may be the biggest test they face until then. Can Fergie find a balance between defense and attack?
* Nicolas Gaitan: The Benfica midfielder has recently been linked with United so just because of that, he is certainly worth watching. It was Gaitan that provided the service for Cardozo's goal in the return fixture. During that match, he often drifted inward looking for space to receive in so that he could look to create. He is scouted to have very good technical ability and the vision to provide incisive passing in attack.
* Here is a tactical review of the 1-1 draw during the reverse fixture.
Odds: Manchester United 4/7, Draw 11/4, Benfica 11/2
Prediction: Manchester United 1-0 Benfica