Unlike a certain parrot, this match isn’t pining; it’s dead. Very dead. Manchester United’s qualification for the knock-out stages was confirmed after victory on the road against Braga nearly a month ago. Meanwhile, defeat to Galatasaray in matchday five did little but confirm that manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unlikely to deploy many of his major weapons for Wednesday’s match against CFR Cluj. Not with a derby against Manchester City at Eastlands to come on Sunday.
The prospect of an under-strength United side at Old Trafford both excites and causes concern. Certainly, those fringe and young United players that feature against the Romanian champions will benefit for the time and experience.
Yet, with the title race kicking off in earnest on Sunday momentum remains an ephemeral thing; one that United rarely seems to have gain a firm hold on this season.
Last weekend’s fixture with Reading is a case in point. After a rare clean sheet achieved at home to West Ham United the previous Wednesday, Ferguson’s side shipped three in Berkshire amid some of the most haphazard defending the Scot has overseen during 26 years in charge at Old Trafford. There has been much talk of United’s defensive performances this season, but none match the chaos of the first half at Madjeski.
“We’re getting punished when balls go into the box, but we should be defending far better,” admitted Ferguson on Tuesday.
“It’s a worry, a concern – if we perform like that on Sunday, God knows what’ll happen to us. You only have to look at our goals against: we’ve lost 32 goals so far this season. I can’t remember us ever conceding so many goals before Christmas.”
Still, Ferguson should be able to field a strong back-four, with both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones likely to start as the pair seeks sharpness after long spells on the sidelines. David De Gea will return in goal after spending five matches on the bench, while United supporters will get another look at Dutch left-back Alexander Büttner.
Yet, for the second game in a row Ferguson’s team will come under scrutiny. After all, both Cluj and Galatasaray could still qualify from Group H. The other side in the group, Braga, was not the beneficiary of Ferguson’s generosity of team selection.
“We’ll rest some players, like we did against Galatasaray,” added the 70-year-old Scot.
“We have to be fair to all the other teams who are trying to get important positions, either in the next stage of the Champions League or the Europa League. In that respect, we’ll send out a team we expect can win, but there will be changes.”
Even with rotation likely Ferguson says that striker Wayne Rooney will start after the 26-year-old scored twice against Reading at the weekend. That momentum thing again it seems. However, captain Nemanja Vidić will not play after the Serbian declared himself unfit to take part.
“Nemanja feels he needs another few days’ training so he won’t be available. He’s not far away. He’s training well now but I think another few days will bring him on better. When Wayne gets interrupted he needs three games to get back. That’s why he’ll definitely play tomorrow. Wayne needs to play a lot of games to get his match-fitness up.”
Vidić was unlikely to take part in Sunday’s derby either way, although the 30-year-old should play before the year is out. Elsewhere, both Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley could get minutes, with Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck also in contention.
Meanwhile, Cluj arrive at Old Trafford seeking an unlikely win that could take the Romanians through to the knock-out stages. Whatever the result in Manchester, CFR is guaranteed European football after Christmas for the first time in the club’s history, with third place secure.
The Romanians parted company with manager Ioan Andone in October after a series of poor domestic results, with Portuguese Paulo Sérgio appointed late in the month. And with a new manager, comes a fresh impetus it seems, with Cluj suffering just one defeat in nine matches since Sérgio’s appointment.
In a varied career, Sergio has managed Vitória Guimarães, Sporting, and Hearts, among others. Indeed the 44-year-old is now into his eighth managerial position in nine years.
“We always prepare by thinking we can take something from the game – this game is no different,” said Sérgio, who left his position as Hearts manager after securing the Scottish Cup last season.
“It’s not important for me what Braga and Galatasaray are doing or what United do. It’s important to me that we focus on what we have to do.
“It would be an amazing achievement [to qualify]. I think that at the moment we should be happy that we’ll at least be in the Europa League. I don’t think any of you would have bet on us before the group stage began.”
In truth after last season’s calamitous campaign few expected United to qualify with such ease either. Topping Group H ensures the Reds avoid Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, although Ferguson is unlikely to fancy a trip to Milan, Malaga or Real Madrid.
And whatever the result in the dead rubber, the Scot will surely enjoy a clean sheet above all else.
Manchester United v CFR 1907 Cluj – Champions League, Old Trafford – Wednesday 5 December 2012, 7.45pm
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner; Fletcher, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra, Young, Carrick, Scholes, Hernandez, van Persie, Henríquez.
Cluj (4-3-1): Stăncioiu; Aguirregaray, Maftei, Rada, Sepsi; Vass, Godemèche; Bastos, Celestino, Hora; Bjelanović. Subs from: Kapetanos, Godemèche, Pedro, Maftei, Stăncioiu, Nuno, Valente
Officials (All ITA)
Referee: Daniele Orsato
Assistant referees: Mauro Tonolini, Massimiliano Grilli
Additional assistant referees: Andrea De Marco, Mauro Bergonzi
Head to Head
Last 10: United 1, Cluj 0, Draw 0
Overall: United 1, Cluj 0, Draw 0