There are few more atmospheric stadia than Estádio Municipal, Braga, carved as it is into the face of Monte Castro quarry. Three sides every bit a tight, sometimes intimidating venue; the other sheer rock with an almost tragi-comic large screen perched into the cliff face. Still, there is no more picturesque place at which to secure qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages – an achievement that Manchester United is seeking at SC Braga in Portugal on Wednesday night.
With nine points from three victories to date, albeit from only marginally impressive performances, United could progress with just a point on Wednesday night. That, however, is a result unlikely to impress manager Sir Alex Ferguson, with the 70-year-old Scot bent on securing top spot in group X. After United’s failure to qualify last season Ferguson’s over-compensation is the least reaction Reds could expect.
Still, Ferguson will make several changes to the side that beat Arsenal at Old Trafford on Saturday in preparation for the weekend fixture with Aston Villa. It is a familiar story in Europe, but unlike last season’s competition United has largely circumvented punishment for rotating the squad in the group stages.
“I’ll be making some changes for Wednesday, no doubt about that,” confirmed Ferguson on Tuesday.
“Obviously we want to win on Wednesday. If we get a win, that’s better as we want to make sure we qualify first. If we win, we’re through to the next phase and that’s the most important part. Braga have a good record at home, but I think we can get the win.
“The most important thing is to go through. In order to win the Champions League we have to play at a really high level. Real and Barcelona are the main contenders, and Borussia’s also one of them. I hope we can be together with them as well.”
Ferguson, however, will still be without injured defensive duo Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidić, while Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes have been left in Manchester to rest. H
However, Chris Smalling is now back in full-time training and traveled with the squad to Portugal. The 22-year-old in unlikely to start after missing the opening three months of the season with a broken metatarsal, but may feature at some point.
“Fletcher got a little bit of a cold on Sunday, and there’s no point taking him travelling with a cold,” explained Ferguson. “Scholesy, for the last few games I’ve been resting him to freshen him up a little bit. I’m just taking care of an old man, that’s all!
“Phil Jones will start training with us next Monday which is good news – he is making really good progress now. Chris Smalling is with the party and will be involved tomorrow. Those two are outstanding young defenders and it will give us a fantastic squad to take on all our challenges
“That is really good news because as we know, since the start of the season, we’ve been operating on the borderline in terms of certain defenders having to play all the time.”
The Scot is likely to bring Anders Lindegaard back into goal for David de Gea, while Nani, Anderson, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández will all hope to see some action in Portugal’s third city.
Meanwhile, Braga will feel confident of taking something from the game after going two goals up at Old Trafford last month. The Portuguese outfit, which reached the Europa League final last season, eventually succumbed to United’s second-half pressure, but not without testing the Reds’ porous defence first.
Braga coach José Peseiro is without Paulo Vinícius and Paulo César who are both unavailable with thigh injuries, although Douglão returned to action at the weekend and could start.
“We need to have some possession but must not attack too hard,” concedes Peseiro.
“It’s not even worth thinking that we can crush United. We showed we could cause them some problems in the first game. The way we switch from defence to attack is very important, but the most important thing is to be consistent.
“Even if they change their lineup, their team is top quality because they have more than one good player in every position. If they win tomorrow, they’ll qualify for the next phase, so we know what’s in their minds.”
Indeed, qualification a day after Ferguson celebrated his 26th year in charge of United will be all the present the Scot needs. In a ceremony at Old Trafford later this month Ferguson will be presented, in his honour, the latest statue erected at the old stadium.
The Scot replaced Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford in November 1986, ending United’s 26 year wait for a league title in 1993. Five FA Cups, four league cups and 11 more championships have followed.
How Ferguson would love to add just one more European title to the two Champions Leagues he has already won in what could yet be his final season in charge.
SC Braga v Manchester United – Champions League, Estádio Municipal – Wednesday 7 November 2012, 7.45pm
Braga (4-4-2): Beto; Baiano, Coelho, Dougão, Elderson; Custódio, Viana, Mossoró, Barbosa; Zé Luís, Éder. Subs from: Quim, Micael, Amorim, , Capela, Micael, Djamal, Alan, Custódio, Guilherme, Michel, Carlão.
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner; Anderson, Carrick; Nani, Rooney, Welbeck; Hernández. Subs from: De Gea, Smalling, Evra, Cleverley, Giggs, Nani, Valencia, Powell, Young, van Persie.
Officials (all GER)
Referee Felix Brych
Assistant referees Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees Felix Zwayer, Guido Winkmann
Fourth official Mike Pickel
Head to Head
Overall: Braga 0, United 1, Draw 0