Manchester United have made the trip south to meet Portuguese giants Benfica in Lisbon this evening, in the third game of this season’s Champions League Group A. Having easily beaten both F.C. Basel and C.S.K.A. Moscow in their opening Group fixtures, United will look to strengthen their stranglehold of this Group with a good result in the legendary Stadium of Light. Benfica have made a very poor start to their campaign, losing their opening home game 1-2 to the Russian team before getting hammered 5-0 in Basel two weeks ago, a shocking result for a club of their European pedigree.
As such, these two games against United represent something of a “last chance saloon” for Benfica’s hopes of progressing from the Group into the knock-out stages of the competition in the springtime, and particularly in this home tie, I would expect them to come out ‘all guns blazing’ since anything other than a win would, one suspects, leave them requiring a miracle to finish in the qualifying positions.
After a solid defensive performance against Liverpool on Saturday, Jose Mourinho will again be looking to his defence to remain difficult to breach in his home country, though I’m sure he will be hoping for much more from his attacking players than they managed to muster at Anfield, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan particularly disappointing on the day. The continued absence of midfield lynchpin Paul Pogba with a hamstring injury was keenly felt for the first time at the weekend (particularly as a link between defensive midfield and attack, where Mkhitaryan was shackled well by Jordan Henderson), and combined with injuries to Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick it left United short in central midfield, with Jurgen Klopp starting a 3-man midfield of Henderson, Gigi Wijnaldum and Emre Can. In effect, Mourinho had no answer to this, and was almost forced to play a very counter-attacking game based largely on defending in numbers.
Here is my team selection for this game: (a fluid 4-2-3-1, which needs to be more expansive with the ball than on Saturday)
GK: David de Gea – despite having surprisingly little to do at Anfield, the Spanish keeper pulled off a brilliant reaction block with his left foot to deny Liverpool centre-back Joel Matip a certain goal in the 1st half on Saturday, and he deservedly remains the ‘best keeper in the world’ in many pundits’ opinions;
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony was at his resilient best at Anfield, despite having journeyed halfway around the world to star for his country last week. He will have no problem performing in what is sure to be an intimidating atmosphere in Lisbon, and hopefully can combine well with whoever is selected to play at right-midfield for us.
LB: Daley Blind – Daley didn’t get on the pitch at the weekend, but it’s hard to see how Benfica could have a speedy right winger like Mo Salah who might expose the Dutchman for lack of pace, and I’d bring him in for this contest, fresh, fit and raring to go. He is likely to come up against Serbian Andrija Zivkovic, who often cuts back onto his favoured left foot from that position.
CBs: Chris Smalling & Phil Jones – Smalling came in to replace the injured Eric Bailly ahead of the Liverpool game and looked reasonably comfortable alongside fellow England centre-back Jones. They will have their hands full, with the experienced strike force of Mexican Raul Jimenez and Brazil’s former Valencia striker Jonas to shackle. Jonas has scored 91 goals in just 109 games for the Eagles and is therefore not to be taken lightly!
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – who else? They worked their socks off to largely successfully prevent Liverpool from putting too much pressure on our back line on Saturday, and it’ll be more of the same here, though hopefully we can be a fair bit more offensive against the Portuguese Champions than we managed at Anfield.
RM: Juan Mata – the little man was a surprise omission from the line-up on the weekend and I think we certainly missed his industry and invention on the ball- I would have had him starting in the centre with Herrera and Matic to ‘even’ the numbers against Klopp’s team. In Lisbon, he will need to make himself an outlet for the ball from the back, as well as linking the play towards Lukaku.
AM(C): Henrikh Mkhitaryan – the Armenian was poor against Liverpool, not imposing himself on the game at all, largely invisible before being substituted in the 2nd half. We need more from a player with such exquisite technical ability and vision, and I’d hope to see a LOT more from Henrikh against Benfica.
LM: Marcus Rashford – Marcus only made the bench at Anfield, with Anthony Martial favoured on the left, but after a lacklustre, frustrating afternoon for the young Frenchman, Rashford came on to suffer the same frustration for the last 25 minutes. He should be relatively fresh, and his work-rate combined with no little ability on the ball should make him a player that Benfica fear.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man had a quiet day at Liverpool, mustering only a single worthwhile goalscoring chance in the game, and he cut a frustrated figure throughout, at one point raising his arms in despair at the lack of service he was experiencing. I would hope and expect him to be much more involved against Benfica, and their centre-backs (probably Luisao and Eliseu) won’t fancy it one little bit. The hosts will be without suspended centre-back Andre Almeida after he was dismissed against Basel, so hopefully Romelu can take advantage of any misunderstandings in the Benfica defence!
BENCH: Romero, Martial, Lingard, Young, Carrick (if fit), Darmian, Lindelof.
This may be a more difficult game than the host’s last result at Basel would suggest, simply because of their pedigree as perennial winners in Portugal and the stature of Benfica as a club in European football. Their fans are as passionate as any other, and will be demanding a reaction from their team after the very poor performance in Switzerland.
All that said, United are in good form going into this game, and Jose Mourinho will not want to take a team back to his homeland and suffer defeat. Whilst a draw would be a very respectable and acceptable outcome, United undoubtedly possess enough quality to win in Lisbon, especially as a victory would almost certainly guarantee passage into the knock-out phase of the Champions League next spring already, after only 3 games.
We could do with having Michael Carrick back from injury as another option in the middle, but I will be disappointed if we don’t take at least a point from this game, despite not being under any real pressure to get a positive result thanks to our wins over the other teams in the Group. I expect a much more positive approach to this game than the deep-lying formation which was almost forced upon us on Saturday, but that may be dictated once again by the availability of midfield players returning from injury.