Sir Alex Ferguson will use the full weight of his squad in coming weeks, starting with Manchester United’s tie with Portugal’s Benfica on Wednesday night. Tom Cleverley, Rafael da Silva and Nemanja Vidic miss the game through injury, while Rio Ferdinand is protected with Chelsea to come on Sunday. Yet Ferguson is likely to make further changes, aware that United’s busy schedule over the next two months will wring the freshness out of his squad.
Indeed, Ferguson could restore some of his more experienced players, having started so many youngster stars in the opening weeks of United’s campaign, with the effervescent energy that it has brought to his team. Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung are each in contention for a place in Ferguson’s team for Wednesday’s match at Estádio da Luz , northern Lisbon.
“I have not picked my team yet,” said the 69-year-old, now in his 26th season with the club.
“We are coming into a period where we have the game tomorrow, then Chelsea on Sunday, Leeds United on Tuesday, then Stoke away on the following Saturday. Obviously the squad will be used but first of all we are giving a lot of consideration to Benfica. I have a few things to think about. But it wouldn’t worry me at all to play the [same] team that is doing well.”
Once again, the romance of European competition has captured Ferguson’s heart, with the United boss hoping to improve on last season’s run to the final. Indeed, while three finals in the past four years presents a huge achievement for the Scot, two crushing defeats to Barcelona still weigh heavily. It’s a challenge that Ferguson believes United is now closer to meeting, having seen his side begin the new campaign in such positive fashion.
“It’s always the challenge for us,” added Ferguson, who was in a jovial mood ahead of United’s eighth European Cup meeting with the Portuguese giants.
“We’re coming closer all the time to getting another trophy. The consistency has been very, very good over last few years. That’s a good guide to the standard we are in Europe and also the progress we’re making. I think the last three years we haven’t lost an away game, apart from the finals. Of course we want to improve, that’s the drive of every coach and player, to improve. We hope we can improve. The most important thing is to win it – that’s the improvement that we really do want.
“It is different winning the Champions League in the present day than it was 30 years ago. All the best teams are in Europe; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Villarreal from Spain, Benfica and Porto from Portugal. Ourselves, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City. It is a very difficult tournament to win now. That is why I am pleased with the progress my team has made because you can see the consistency has been the hallmark of our game in the last few years.”
With Ferdinand rested as a precaution, Ferguson may restore Chris Smalling to United’s starting line-up, with Phil Jones moving inside despite the highly successful showing at right-back against Bolton Wanderers at the weekend. Meanwhile, the Scot may bring both Carrick and Fletcher into central midfield, despite Anderson’s positive start to the season.
Unbeaten away from Old Trafford for three seasons, Ferguson’s team has found a highly successful, if sometimes negative way of playing on the road in European competition. This may colour Ferguson’s selection should the Scot choose to implement a three-man midfield for United’s first European game of the season. Indeed, although Benfica finished some way behind Porto at the head of the Primera Liga last season, Ferguson is aware of the talent still available to Jorge Jesus.
“We know all about Pablo Aimar,” added Sir Alex.
“Aimar played against us for Valencia a few years ago, he is a very talented player. [Ezequiel] Garay and Luisao at the back are also very experienced, good players. It won’t be easy for us; it will be a difficult game. But it will be difficult for Benfica too.”
Once again United will rely on Wayne Rooney as both creator and goalscorer. The 25-year-old Scouser has scored 10 goals in six competitive games for club and country this season, including two successive hat-tricks in the Premier League. The triple brought warm praise from Benfica coach Jesus, who compared the England striker to often more lauded Brazilians and Argentinians.
It’s a comparison Ferguson welcomes, although the Scot is unlikely to add a ‘ninho’ to the £30 million former Evertonian just yet.
”Wayne is a typical British player,” Ferguson added.
“But there have been British players who have great qualities that made them great players – [Paul] Gascoigne, George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
”Look at Pele. ‘He was a very aggressive attacker as well who could look after himself. So can Rooney. There are similarities that way in strength, speed and determination. But he is white, completely white. The similarities are that the boy has great courage. He wants to play all the time. He has incredible stamina. These are added extras to the talent he has.”
Jesus’ team, meanwhile, is refreshed, with the coach having rested key players Aimar and Nolito for the 2-1 win over Vitória de Guimarães at the weekend. Nolito, a summer signing from Barcelona, has scored five in as many games this season and has formed a potent partnership with Óscar Cardozo. The strike pair is complimented in the starting line-up by summer signings Ezequiel Garay and Axel Witsel, who joined after Benfica pocketed around €30 million for Real Madrid bound defender Fábio Coentrão.
“The Champions League is the maximum for any player,” Jesus said told UEFA.com.
“My experience is that whether you are playing Manchester United or Basel, the players’ motivation is the same. When you start the match and hear the Champions League anthem, the player is already so charged with adrenaline because he feels he is playing with the very best. Every player is super-concentrated, super-motivated, and will do everything to be at the highest possible level.”
History points to the sternest of tests for Jesus’ men, with United having won six of the clubs’ seven fixtures in this competition, including the 1968 final. However, few Reds will forget Benfica’s 2-1 Lisbon victory in 2005 that eliminated Ferguson’s team at the group stage. Five United players – Ferdinand, Park, Giggs, Rooney and Fletcher – remain from that game, one of the most dismal of Ferguson’s tenure.
Benfica is also seeking a seventh successive home victory in Europe, having already beaten Trabzonspor AŞ and FC Twente in the play-offs; a record of which Ferguson is understandably respectful.
Benfica versus Manchester United, Champions League, Estádio da Luz, Wednesday 12 September 2011, 7.45pm.
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Guilherme Moraes Artur; Emerson, Luisao, Garay, Pereira; Garcia, Witsel; Aimar, Gaitan, Nolito; Cardozo. Subs from: Eduardo, Jardel, Amorim, Matic, Cesar, Saviola, Jara.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Evans, Jones, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fletcher, Young; Rooney; hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Giggs, Anderson, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Pogba.
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)