Sir Alex Ferguson has blamed injuries for disrupting Manchester United’s rhythm this season. His side began the campaign in fine form, but inconsistent performances in recent weeks, including heavy defeat to Manchester City, have taken the gloss off the Reds’ season. The Scot’s side, which is five points behind City in the Premier League, has achieved five clean sheets in a row since derby defeat, but has sacrificed attacking fluidity in the process. But, says Ferguson, United will hit top gear as the winter sets in and players return to the first team.
Injury to Tom Cleverley, in particular, has unsettled United’s balance, with Wayne Rooney moved from attack to midfield to compensate for the 22-year-old’s loss. Indeed, United has failed to score more than once in any Premier League game since City hit six at Old Trafford in October, with Rooney deployed deeper as Ferguson has sought greater midfield protection for his back four.
The lack of penetration in recent weeks is surely worrying the Scot, whose side faces a crucial tie with Benfica at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Defeat to the Portuguese giants is unthinkable, but could place United’s progress from the group stages of the Champions League in doubt for the first time since 2005.
“I think we’ve made some changes to the team at the start of the season,” explained 69-year-old Ferguson.
“Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling got injured and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were injured in the first game. So there were quite a few changes you don’t envisage. You see everyone fit and fresh in pre-season and, going through the tour of the States, there was not one injury and then you’re hit with a whole host [of them]. It doesn’t disrupt us to a great degree but it does unsettle the balance of the team at times.
“Sometimes we have to rethink which team we need to win a match and sometimes, when the team is in full flow, you don’t need to worry about that. We’ve had a few issues but hopefully we’re gradually getting over them and, once we get the players back in again, we’ll be okay.”
Ferguson’s side will be without long-term injury victims Cleverley, Michael Owen and Chris Smalling, although the latter trained separately from the main group on Monday. Danny Welbeck also returned to training, but the youngster is highly unlikely to make the European fixture. Meanwhile, kids Ravel Morrison, Ezekiel Fryers and Davide Petrucci joined the first team group, with speculation rife that one or more could make Ferguson’s side on Tuesday night.
However, Rooney sat out Monday’s training session following “a couple of knocks” suffered during United’s 1-0 victory over Swansea City at the weekend. The 26-year-old Scouser is likely to make the tie though and, with victory essential, could be pushed into a forward position.
In defence captain Nemanja Vidic sits out the second of a two match ban, while Jonny Evans could come back into the team if the Northern Irishman is declared fit.
Meanwhile, Ferguson offered praise for Nani, the former Sporting Lisbon winger, who has become a key plank of United’s attack. The 25-year-old has taken time to generate a greater level of consistency, and can still frustrate at times, but with a growing goal output and an outstanding assists record, Nani is slowly moving out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s lengthy shadow.
“Nani has always had potential,” added Ferguson.
“Some of those who come to our club from abroad do it quickly, others gradually grow into it. Nani is one of those. Even Cristiano took two or three years to get the maturity in his game. That is what we are seeing with Nani now. The goals have been fine but his assists are very high. He is progressing really well.”
Benfica beat United 2-1 in Lisbon in December 2005, and eliminated Ferguson’s team at the group stage for the first time since 1994. Rio Ferdinand, Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher remain for United from that fixture. However, a repeat scenario is one that nobody at Old Trafford is contemplating six years later. Victory for United over Jorge Jesus’ side, coupled with defeat for FC Basel, will guarantee the Reds’ progress to the knock-out stages.
“You do want to finish top as it give you little perks like having the second leg at home,” added Fletcher.
“There are a few aspects to topping the group which benefit you in the long run. First and foremost you look to qualify for the knockout stages but we saw Arsenal finish second last season and end up with Barcelona in the first knockout round. Although people say you have to beat these teams if you want to win the competition, it is good to avoid them until later on.”
Meanwhile, Benfica can boast two of the tournament’s leading strikers in Rodrigo and Óscar Cardozo. Rodrigo, 20, spent a year on loan with Bolton Wanderers last season, but has bloomed in the current campaign, scoring in each of Benfica’s last five matches. However, the youngster could be sacrificed if Jesus deploys an extra man in midfield.
Cardozo, Benfica’s goalscorer against United on matchday one, has a knack of finding the net against English clubs having scored six times in four matches against Everton and Liverpool in 2009/10, although the striker only has two in the past 10 matches. Reported United midfield target Nicolás Gaitán has provided four assists to date, the highest total in the competition.
“It`s a big game, a game we recognise as a real European game in the history of Benfica and ourselves,” concluded Ferguson.
“There’ve been loads of great games between the sides that always stick in the memory, such as one we lost 2-1 over there. In the first match over there [this season] we did well and our possession was good. We deserved the result except for maybe the last 15 minutes, when they had a few chances. It should be an open match, both teams want to win.”
That, at least, will make a change from United’s recent negative performances, despite yielding five victories in a row since the loss to City.
Manchester United versus Benfica, Champions League, Old Trafford, Tuesday 22 November 2011, 7.45pm
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Pogba, Fryers, Park, Morrison, Gibson, Petrucci, Young, Berbatov, Diouf.
Benfica (4-4-1-1): Artur; Pereira, Luisao, Garay, Emerson; Garcia, Witsel, Cesar, Gaitan; Aimar; Cardozo. Subs from: Eduardo, Peixoto, Vítor, Jardel, Amorim, Nolito, Matić, Simão, Peréz, Oliveira, Rodrigo, Saviola
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referees: Bahattin Duran, Tarik Ongun
Additional assistant referees: Tolga Özkalfa, Süleyman Abay