Manchester United welcomes Sporting Braga to Old Trafford on Tuesday, with the Reds chasing a win that should ease qualification into the Champions League knock out stages. United has been far from fluent in the competition to date, but victory over last season’s Europa League finalists will take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to within a point of guaranteed progression. After last season’s pre-Christmas exit qualification alone will be an achievement.
However, Ferguson is set to rotate his resources for the visit of José Peseiro’s outfit, with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra certain to miss out as United’s manager seeks to rest players ahead of next weekend’s fixture with Chelsea. Indeed, the 70-year-old Scot could make eight changes from the side that beat Stoke City 4-2 at the weekend, with Ashley Young, Anderson, Alexander Büttner and perhaps even Scott Wootton coming into the side.
Ferdinand will not feature, but United’s manager, Monday, backtracked on an implied threat to punish the 33-year-old defender for refusing to wear a Kick It Out t-shirt at the weekend. Blamed on a miscommunication, Ferguson says that Ferdinand will return for United’s Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge next Sunday.
Aside from the inevitable changes, Ferguson may reintroduce the diamond formation that brought the Reds victory over Cluj and Newcastle United in recent outings. It is a system, claims the Scot, that plays to his squad’s strengths, if not United’s history.
“If it turns out as a consistent team selection from me, playing a diamond, it is revolutionary because we’re going against our history,” admitted Ferguson on Monday
“I think the level of the game in England and Europe is such a high level now that making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength. Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things.
“Players like Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley can play very well in the type of matches the diamond offers. And of course in Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, I’ve got really good wide players also. It is difficult – we have had some success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always to play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have a decision to make.”
Back into the side comes Shiji Kagawa, after the Japanese play-maker missed out on United’s victory over Stoke. The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has failed to recreate the early season burst of form over the past month, with the Scot’s tactics and formation rarely aiding the £16 million acquisition. Ferguson is again likely to deploy the 23-year-old out of position against Braga.
“The initial reason for taking him was his ability to play behind the strikers,” said Ferguson “In the last couple of games he has played middle to right – not a problem for him because he still has the ability to create.”
Meanwhile, Young could feature after missing two months with a knee injury. The former Aston Villa winger has made just one start in the campaign, but will make the bench as a minimum against Peseiro’s side. However, there may once again be no room for Nani in Ferguson’s wingerless system. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie could drop to the bench, with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández in line to start up front.
Despite the plethora of changes Ferguson insists he is taking the Portuguese opponents seriously after United was accused of complacency in last season’s campaign.
“We’ve kept players back who have been playing well – Cleverley, Kagawa – so I wouldn’t call that underestimating Braga,” added Ferguson.
“Braga are better away from home, [they] showed that beating Galatasaray [2-0]. It’s not easy going to Turkey. In the modern European game counter-attack is the issue, so tomorrow hopefully we can deal with that.”
Whatever the formation, history points to victory for Ferguson’s side. United has never lost at home to Portuguese opponents, although Peseiro’s side is unbeaten in seven matches away from home in European competition. It’s quite a turn-around for Os Arcebispos who lost 6-0 to Arsenal in the club’s first Champions League encounter. With more than a touch of coincidence the thrashing matched that handed down by Tottenham Hotspur FC in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup first round.
Yet, Braga also boasts a health record against English opponents, going five games unbeaten since defeat to Arsenal, including a 1-0 aggregate victory over Liverpool in the 2010/11 Europa League.
Peseiro, like compatriots José Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas, enjoyed a limited playing career in the minor leagues before a low-key start as a manager. Begining his coaching career at Nacional, Peseiro took the Madeira club from the third division to the Primeira Liga in three seasons. For a season the 52-year-old worked under Carlos Quieroz at Real Madrid before returning to Portugal when the former United assistant manager was sacked by the Bernabeu hierarchy.
“We’ve got good players and a good team too, so we’re going to be trying to win,” said Peseiro, who will have been encouraged by United’s unspectacular wins over Cluj and Galatasaray.
“If we can’t win then a draw is a good result too. Sir Alex Ferguson praised Braga very highly only a few days ago, so he doesn’t underestimate us.”
Plenty of changes may say otherwise. Then again, Ferguson probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Manchester United v Sporting Clube de Braga – Champions League, Old Trafford – Tuesday 22 October 2012, 7.45pm
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Wootton, Evans, Buttner; Fletcher; Anderson, Cleverley, Kagawa; Welbeck, Hernández. Subs from: De Gea, Keane, Carrick, Giggs, Scholes, Nani, Valencia, Young, Rooney, van Persie.
Braga (4-2-3-1): Beto; Baiano, Douglao, Vinícius, Elderson; Custodio, Viana; Alan, Mossoró, Barbosa; Eder. Subs from: Quim, Haas, Coelho, Amorim, Paulo César, Rivera, Michel, Micael, Ismaily, Salino, Custódio, Zé Luís, Douglão, Carlão.
Officials (All Serbia)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Assistant referees: Milovan Ristić, Igor Radojčić
Additional assistant referees: Milenko Vukadinović, Miodrag Gogić
Head to Head