UEFA Champions League is back – A few thoughts ahead of the Benfica game…

by Sam Peoples

43 years ago, Manchester United beat SL Benfica and claimed their first European Cup in Wembley. Tomorrow, United will make their Champions League bow tomorrow in what could potentially emerge as the toughest fixture in the group in an away fixture against Benfica once again. In terms of form, United are arguably the most in form team in the world having won all their games this season as well as scoring an average of 4.5 goals per match, with Wayne Rooney scoring 8 goals in his last 4 games and making his best start ever to a Premier League season. He has been showing the flashes of brilliance that United fans have craved consistently and is shaping up to be a world beater this year, so the beginning of the Champions League could not have been better timed for him and United.

So many United players have started the season in such excellent form and the overall strength of the squad is at an all-time high in recent seasons. Few would have expected that with first-choice centre-backs Ferdinand and Vidic out for extended periods that United’s defence would look as strong as it is: 19-year old Phil Jones has exceeded his promise as such a young player and put in some excellent performances after he has started  the last 3 Premier League games, managing 2 assists along the way in the 5-0 victory away to Bolton as he played an excellent game at right back. Chris Smalling continued on the great form he showed last season and has showed his versatility, much like Jones, playing games at both centre-back and right-back for United and playing them well. Even Jonny Evans has put in some assured performances so far this season which is not doing himself any harm, although he still looks nervous when he has the ball at his feet and still rushes into making some silly mistakes. With Rio Ferdinand not having travelled to Benfica, it looks likely that SAF will be fielding his youngsters in what could be a very difficult and daunting away fixture, so it will be a real test to see if our team can continue the astonishing form we have found so far domestically this season. Evans and Evra have both shaken off injuries sustained away to Bolton this weekend and the defence looks pre-determined ahead of the fixture. Our Spanish sensation David De Gea has shaken off early criticism and put in some fantastic performances that has led to him standing out as the best keeper currently in the Premier League and having won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid previously, he is no stranger to the pressures of European football, so I fully expect him to continue his fine run of form and hopefully see signs of him beginning to dictate and control from the back.

My prediction for the starting XI

While SAF will have to use his youth in the defence, he has admitted that he will turn to his experienced players as he knows that Benfica will likely field 3 players in the middle of the park. With Tom Cleverley out injured, Michael Carrick will slot into his position and hold back to provide stability to a defence who has never played alongside each other in Europe before. The consistently excellent performances of Anderson should warrant himself a starting position tomorrow night, as I doubt that SAF would throw Fletcher back into the deep end with a starting spot but Anderson will now need to keep up his form if he is to hold onto his first XI spot, with Fletcher biting at his heels to steal it back. I am not sure who the wingers will be but I have chosen to go for Nani and Giggs who should provide a balance between defence and attack that should mean that United aren’t going out with a defensive minded tactic. SAF could indeed choose to give Park or Valencia their first start of the season but with Tony having returned from injury, he might feel a European away fixture would be too much too soon. Will SAF give a Champions League bow to Ashley Young in this fixture? Form would dictate that he should be playing but as he admitted he will choose the more experienced players, it is likely that Young will only get a substitute appearance, if he even plays at all.

SAF will undoubtedly have one eye on Chelsea this Sunday and considering how well Ryan Giggs played in central midfield against them last season, he might play Park instead of Giggs but the selection dilemma can only be considered a good thing. I can’t see SAF resting Rooney, such is his form, but I feel that Hernandez should be used as an impact substitution and Dimitar Berbatov should be given his chance to put in a performance. His goalscoring record in Europe might be poor but with United likely to play a slower pace of game away from home, his composure and class upfront should give Rooney the opportunity to work his wizardry from the number 10 slot just off of him.

Benfica danger man Oscar Cardozo will be a big threat to the United defence, especially when he has the likes of Pablo Aimar, Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia playing behind him. This will be a real tester to the young United team that has provided such wonderful football this season and I would consider a point away to Benfica not a bad result at all. SAF on the other hand will no doubt be looking for the 3 points to kick-start United’s Champions League campaign this year but this fixture will not see the steam rolling of United continue. I fully expect that both teams will get on the score sheet one way or another but I think that the form of United, more specifically Wayne Rooney, will carry us through this fixture and provide us with a tight 2-1 victory, with Rooney to get on the score sheet once again. Hopefully this year, we can go one step further and get our hands on that coveted trophy once again…

Photo: Clive Mason (Getty Images)

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