Unlike the anxiety being felt by many United fans regarding our Premier League pursuit of neighbours Manchester City, who have started the season in superb form, the Champions League campaign has been serene, almost bordering on ‘easy’ to date. United have proven themselves to be the outstanding team in Group A, and hold a commanding position at the top of the table, with 9 points from the opening 3 fixtures, which have included potentially tricky trips to Moscow and Lisbon.
This evening witnesses the visit of the group seeds, Portuguese giants Benfica, who currently occupy bottom place in the table and will be condemned to an early Champions League elimination if they suffer defeat to the Red Devils at Old Trafford and F.C. Basel prevail against C.S.K.A. Moscow in Switzerland.
United won the reverse fixture 1-0 at the Stadium of Light two weeks ago in a mundane display that perhaps was more of a reflection on how poor Benfica were coming forward rather than on United going with an adventurous mindset, though the Red Devils were much the better side throughout and deserved their win, even if it did come through a mistake from Benfica’s young goalkeeper. The team go into this game on the back of a very disciplined, well deserved 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, thanks to a late opportunist strike from French wonder-kid Anthony Martial, and given the forthcoming Premier League fixture at Chelsea on Sunday, I would expect Jose Mourinho to once again rotate his squad as much as he is able to with our current injury situation.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-2-3-1)
GK: Sergio Romero – David de Gea had little to do against Tottenham, such was the excellence of the defence in front of him, but looked to tentatively feel his left hamstring when Dele Alli put Spurs’ only real chance wide of his right-hand post on Saturday past and I feel that he could be rested for what will be a much tougher test at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. Romero is a very able deputy who can handle whatever Benfica have to throw at him.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony was excellent, as usual, against Tottenham, and was mere inches away from scoring a second ‘screamer’ of the season after his superb strike against Everton. Once again, he should get opportunities to venture forward against the Portuguese.
LB: Daley Blind – Blind didn’t feature against Spurs and is probably second choice at left-back behind Ashley Young now, but Daley is a good professional who can also get forward on the left to great effect. I’d rest Young ahead of the Chelsea game. Luke Shaw has plenty to do to get back to consideration.
CBs: Chris Smalling & Victor Lindelof– Smalling played against Tottenham, and has the defensive ability to do a job against Benfica too. His distribution is letting him down at the minute, and hopefully another outing will give him the chance to improve on that aspect of his game. Lindelof simply needs to play games, as his appearance at Huddersfield Town showed he isn’t ready for the hurly-burly of the English domestic league yet. Benfica, his former side, should be more to his liking, and give him a chance to build some much-needed self-confidence.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera–The big man was a rock on which Spurs’ attacks frequently foundered on Saturday, and I’d expect Benfica to have the same problem trying to get the better of him. Will give some much-needed protection to our centre-backs, and may get the chance to contribute going forwards as well against his former club. Herrera worked his socks off against the North London side, but needs to do more when in possession. He should be a step above his Benfica counterparts in quality, though.
RM: Juan Mata – Mata didn’t feature against Tottenham, and will be anxious to keep his name in the 1st team ‘mix’. Has the ability and vision to be devastating on the ball, and the slightly slower pace of the European fixtures will suit Juan more.
CM (A): Henrikh Mkhitaryan- Henrikh looked better against Tottenham than he has in a few weeks, despite being clearly asked to do a ‘defend first, create second’ role in that game. It is not his strength, though, and he will relish the chance to be more attack-minded against the Portuguese champions. Needs to get himself more consistently involved in the play as he tends to drift out of games, which is not recommended for anyone looking to have a long stay at Old Trafford.
LM: Anthony Martial – The enigmatic young Frenchman was the hero on Saturday, emerging after 70 minutes from the bench to ghost past the Spurs defence and scuff Lukaku’s flick-on past Hugo Lloris for the only goal ten minutes from time. I expect him to start tonight, both to get game-time under his belt, but also because I think Jose will favour the harder-working Marcus Rashford against Chelsea on Sunday, so Tony should get the starting shirt this evening. Benfica won’t enjoy facing him.
CF: Romelu Lukaku– The big striker had a reasonably successful showing against a stubborn Spurs defence at the weekend. He ended up hitting the post with a superb header from a Jesse Lingard cross from the right wing, and grabbed an assist for Martial’s winning goal….but Romelu will undoubtedly be looking to put his own name on the score-sheet this evening, against a shaky defence which has conceded 8 goals in the competition already.
BENCH: de Gea, McTominay, Rashford, Bailly, Young, Lingard, Tuanzebe.
This should be the fixture that United use to rubber-stamp their safe passage into the knock-out phase of this season’s Champions League competition. Benfica looked pretty toothless on their own patch two weeks ago, and in the glaring light of the big Old Trafford pitch, I fully expect United to dominate possession and put the Eagles under the ‘spotlight’. The visitors know that anything less than victory will almost certainly condemn them to no further European Cup adventures next spring and so I expect them to be much better than they were in Lisbon, but United, frankly, should have too much quality for them on our own turf. Anything less than a victory will be disappointing, but a draw wouldn’t be a disaster, with games at F.C. Basel and home to C.S.K.A. Moscow still to come. Jose will be anxious to get another 3 points on the board and put this competition ‘into hibernation’ for the winter as early as possible, since the Premier League action will be heating up from now on.