Champions League football for United is back for a record breaking 16th consecutive season. The campaign starts away to Benfica – arguably the hardest fixture that United will have in the group stages. After disappointment at Wembley in May, United will be looking to try and win the competition and in doing so would reach an incredible fourth final in five years.
It’s good to have the Champions League theme tune back in our lives!
Benfica were unable to defend their title last season and had to settle for second place behind Porto. A whole host of players have left the club on loan but some summer spending was needed and it was funded by the sale of Fábio Coentrão to Real Madrid for €30m. In came Ezequiel Garay, Axel Witsel, Emerson, Joan Capdevila and on loan, Eduardo Carvalho.
Famously in 1968 Benfica with the great Eusebio reached the final of the European Cup but in the modern era they closest they’ve got to that stage of the competition was in 2005/06 when they reached the quarter finals, beating United on the way. To make the group stages this year they beat FC Twente 5-2 over two legs.
There’s no doubting the danger man, Oscar Cardozo has started the season in superb form for club and country with 8 goals in his last seven games. It took him just over 160 games to rack up 100 goals for the club and he’ll lead the line for Benfica, using his power and strength to try and disrupt a young United defence.
Pablo Aimar has faced United before when he was at Valencia; despite being 31, nearly 32 he’s still a clever footballer always looking to get on the ball and find the right pass. He’s the ability to play short passes or obscure long balls. He combines the Argentinian calmness and balance with the expressiveness and ingenuity of the current Spanish team. United will have to stop him from dictating the play.
With close to 50 caps for Brazil and over 300 appearances for Benfica, the current captain, Luisão will lead from the back. He’s 30 now and probably in his prime, at the peak of his career. He may not be the fastest centre back but he’s clever, fearless and strong. At 6ft 4in, United will be best off keeping the ball on the ground rather than taking the long ball option. However, the Brazilian blood in him makes him comfortable in possession too, he won’t be easy to get past.
How do they play?
Without going into huge detail they play a 4-3-3 that at times could look like a 4-4-1-1 with the midfield in a diamond. A deep midfielder anchors the side whilst he’s flanked by narrow wingers. Aimar usually heads the diamond playing behind one striker who plays behind the other. A key part of how they play is the reliance on the full backs to get forward and join the attacks. They like to pass the ball around but don’t like to waste it – they’re aim is to attack and score goals where possible. There’s little long ball football although Cardozo is very able as a target man. The players are clearly encouraged to express themselves, making for entertaining football.
United’s early season form has been close to flawless – four wins from four with 18 goals scored and two clean sheets seems to go against United’s usual slow start. On Saturday they put 5 goals past Bolton with Rooney taking his tally to 8 in four league games. They do however have a big game at the weekend against Chelsea to keep half an eye on and whilst the youngsters have taken centre stage so far, this may be a game for the old heads.
Benfica come into this game having beaten Guimaraes at home on Saturday. They failed to keep a clean sheet though and are yet to keep the opposition out in any of their home league games. Only Porto have won four from four, Benfica and Braga have both drawn one of their away games. Benfica are yet to fail to score in any of their matches, averaging better than two goals a game. They won’t need to rest any players ahead of the weekend, they play Academica late on Sunday evening.
Tom Cleverley will miss the next four weeks after suffering ankle ligament damage at Bolton. He joins Danny Welbeck, Vidic and Rafael on the injured list. Rio Ferdinand hasn’t travelled, probably just to make sure he’s fresh for Chelsea. A 19 man squad has travelled including Fletcher and Valencia – Fletcher’s likely to play after injury lay-offs.
Benfica will be making last minute checks on the fitness of Enzo Perez, he missed the weekend game and isn’t expected to be fit in time for the visit of United but the club will give him until late on to prove his fitness.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
Away European games are so often about not losing rather than going for the win – with that in mind, expect a different United ‘look’ and style from the league. With Benfica likely to field a 4-3-3, it makes sense for United to try and match them up in the middle however the form of Rooney probably makes him undropable right now and this may see him used as a high midfielder.
In front of De Gea the back four would appear to pick itself. Only five defenders have been taken on the trip and unless Giggs or Valencia are to be used in the full back areas, the already tried and tested grouping of Smalling, Jones, Evans and Evra would appear the obvious combination.
The midfield battle will be key for United and with Cleverley out, Carrick should slot straight in but more than likely that’ll be in a slightly deeper role for this game. Along side him I’ve picked Fletcher to return. He’s ready for minutes and should be ready to snap away at the Benfica players – it’ll also allow a chance to rest Anderson ahead of the big game against Chelsea. There are plenty of options out wide with Giggs as a narrow winger or Young to play given his early season form. However, United need some flair and Nani will provide that and demand the ball all game long. On the other flank I think Park may get the nod. So often in Europe his work-rate and discipline is vital, this may be no different.
Up front for United I think Berbatov will lead the line like he did in Valencia last year. Keeping possession when the team have the ball will be key and he’s the best striker at doing just that and bringing others into play. Behind him, joining the midfield when defending and linking up with Berbatov when attacking will be Rooney. United have plenty of options to change the game if needed – Hernandez and Owen will both be keen to play.
This 4-4-1-1 that can quickly be changed into a more attacking or defensive formation has worked in the past – picking an XI is very tough though with a case easily made for almost every travelling player to start.
Aimar vs. Carrick – Given form, it tends to become obvious to pick Rooney versus whoever he happens to be coming up against; or, Oscar Cardozo versus one of United’s young defenders. However, this game may well be lost, not so much won, for United in the middle of the pitch.
Both sides rely on width – fullbacks for Benfica and wingers and fullbacks for United. However, everything at Benfica goes through Aimar. He’ll drop deep, float behind Saviola or Cardozo and generally take up unorthodox positions, much like Van der Vaart does for Spurs. Nullifying him will deny Benfica their main outlet – it may not win the game for United but it may well help to avoid defeat.
Tasked with keeping Aimar quiet may well be Carrick. With Cleverley’s injury and the fact that European football has often brought the best out of Carrick he seems the obvious selection. Adept at playing like Cleverley, a little bit higher up; he was used deep in a screening role in front of the back four a lot last year. His defensive qualities enable him to do this job well and he provides a calm and assuring outlet when in possession. He’s more than capable of doing this job and like he did against both Schalke and Chelsea in this competition last year, he can become a bit of an unsung hero and key player in this game.
History and last meeting:
The two sides have met seven times before with Benfica losing all bar one. United have never failed to score at the Estadio da Luz and average over two goals per game there. Benfica famously knocked United out of Europe in December 2005, winning 2-1 over a United side that had been shaken up following the departure of captain, Roy Keane just weeks earlier. For United, the most famous and memorable meeting game on neutral soil at Wembley in 1968 as United beat Benfica 4-1 to win their first European Cup.
The last meeting between the two sides was at Old Trafford in December of 2006. United won 3-1, coming from behind with goals from Vidic, Giggs and Saha.
Much like Valencia away last season I can’t see this being a classic. Rather, with some ‘old heads’ coming back in I think it’ll be a professional performance and maybe a single goal will seal a win either way. With that in mind, I’m going to predict a 1-0 for Man United.
Damir Skomina – he’s only 35 but this will be his 7th Champions League tie.
Quick opposition fact:
This season marks the 50th anniversary of Benfica’s 1961/62 European Cup win. It was the second season in a row they’d won the competition and they’re yet to win it since.
Sir Alex Ferguson: “The opening game is the toughest for us. Benfica are always a handful and we always expect a difficult game. I watched a couple of their games away from home last season and they were absolutely brilliant.”
Sir Alex Ferguson on injuries and form: “Rio has stayed behind as a precaution and Vidic has not started training yet, so that will be at least two weeks. I have not decided about tomorrow yet but it wouldn’t worry me to play the team that has been doing well.”
Michael Carrick on selection: “I have to be patient. I have not been left out in the cold in any way and I know I am going to get games. It is frustrating but I look at the bigger picture.”
The Stretford-End.com team have each given a predicted starting XI and final score ahead of the game – give us yours here.
For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.