The last time Sir Alex Ferguson’s side failed to make it out of the Champions League group stages all hell broke loose at Old Trafford. Defeated by Benfica at Estádio da Luz, Manchester United finished bottom of Group D on 7 December 2005, avoiding ignominious relegation to the UEFA Cup. Then, as now, the Reds faced, on paper at least, an eminently winnable qualification group. Yet, dropped points against Lille, Villarreal and the Portuguese left Ferguson red faced, and United out of Europe’s premier competition.
The dark clouds of defeat hung not only over United’s European campaign but domestically too. Defeat to Benfica in Lisbon had followed an equally tedious display against Lille in Paris, after which Ferguson had sought – erroneously – to blame the Stade de France pitch for the Reds’ 1-0 loss. Four days earlier, in what many still regard as one of the most humiliating losses in Ferguson’s reign, Middlesbrough hammered United 4-1 at the Riverside.
The manager appeared, on the surface at least, to hold no answers to United’s struggles.
In between Euro defeats the tension between captain Roy Keane and manager Ferguson reached its zenith, with the Irishman effectively sacked on 18 November. Keane, having already voiced his willingness to play elsewhere with a contract due to expire the following summer, went on to name and shame his failing United team-mates in a now infamous MUTV interview. That the Keane and Ferguson had already clashed in pre-season over preparations at a Portuguese training camp only made the midfielder’s express departure all the more inevitable.
The fall out was equally certain, with doom-laden headlines and very public questions about Ferguson’s ability, energy and willingness to turn around United’s apparent decline. After all, failure in Europe during the 2005/6 season capped a relatively barren period for the club. Chelsea captured that season’s title by eight points, and the previous race too, some 12 points ahead of the Reds. Moreover, Arsenal had taken the Premier League in 2003/4, 15 points ahead of Ferguson’s limited side.
Supporter anger, brewing since the Glazer takeover the previous summer, was only exacerbated by United’s football in winter 2005 that was all too often turgid in nature, with Ruud van Nistelrooy often ploughing a lone furrow up front, and Wayne Rooney frequently consigned to a wide role.
No wonder some fans began to express their anger in writing.
“It is an increasingly inescapable conclusion that, unwittingly or otherwise, Ferguson is winding down, a prizefighter who no longer has the stomach or the wit for an admittedly enormous challenge which, once upon a time, he would have fervently inhaled,” wrote United supporting journalist Rob Smyth in the Guardian.
“Like he did with Liverpool. Ferguson’s almost maniacal yearning to “knock Liverpool off their f***ing perch” was arguably the single most important factor in United’s 1990s renaissance. It makes it all the more vicious an irony that, 10 years later, he should knock United off the perch he had made for them through increasingly rank mismanagement.”
Six years on, four Premier League titles and a European trophy later, and Smyth’s expression of frustration has proven embarrassingly wrong. Yet, in the gloom of Euro exit and domestic supersedence, it was not obvious that the groundwork had been done for future success. Smyth’s was not the only voice of concern.
The inevitable question now is whether United, being heavily outspent by Chelsea and Manchester City domestically, and on the verge of European failure, will repeat the trick of 2005/6? Certainly qualification from Group C is not guaranteed. After all, FC Basel gave the Reds a genuine game at Old Trafford, scoring three times in a well-earned draw. In the hot-house atmosphere of St. Jakob-Park in two week’s time the Reds could conceivably fail.
United’s defensive nous on the road ought to earn the draw needed, but few will bet heavily on it. More to the point, the chances of United securing a second round tie against a European heavyweight is high, with Internazionale, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona all likely to top Champions League groups. Unless whipping boys Otelul Galati secure at least a draw at Benfica United cannot top Group C, and the nation’s bookies will weigh the odds in favour of a new year Euro exit.
Yet, if this is to be a season of transition, with the Class of ’92 – save for Ryan Giggs – all now departed, the groundwork for future success is surely more advanced than in winter 2005. True, United then had a young Cristino Ronaldo, whose partnership with Rooney would blossom into a Champions League winning force. But the squad also contained a plethora of dead wood, including Mikael Silvestre, Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith, and Liam Miller.
Ferguson’s concern today is to mould Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the da Silva brothers and David de Gea into a consistent, long-term, defensive unit, while finding the right blend from his variety of attacking options. However, by far the 69-year-old’s greatest challenge is to find – or buy – a central midfield formula that can compete at the highest level. As it is, mediocrity in the centre of the park is forcing Ferguson to compromise either United’s attacking or defensive cohesion. Too often both.
This concern is not new of course. Ferguson’s failure to adequately replace Keane and then Owen Hargreaves is utterly dumbfounding. Belief that injury-prone rookie Tom Cleverley could carry United’s central midfield alone this season was a glaring strategic error.
In the short-term the Scot will hope, beyond hope, that captain Nemanja Vidic’s return in Switzerland will be accompanied by a fit Rooney. Without the pair, the Reds face a genuine threat of exit. With them, that fear can be postponed to the New Year at least.
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
Sir Alex Ferguson will use the full weight of his squad in coming weeks, starting with Manchester United’s tie with Portugal’s Benfica on Wednesday night. Tom Cleverley, Rafael da Silva and Nemanja Vidic miss the game through injury, while Rio Ferdinand is protected with Chelsea to come on Sunday. Yet Ferguson is likely to make further changes, aware that United’s busy schedule over the next two months will wring the freshness out of his squad.
Indeed, Ferguson could restore some of his more experienced players, having started so many youngster stars in the opening weeks of United’s campaign, with the effervescent energy that it has brought to his team. Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung are each in contention for a place in Ferguson’s team for Wednesday’s match at Estádio da Luz , northern Lisbon.
“I have not picked my team yet,” said the 69-year-old, now in his 26th season with the club.
“We are coming into a period where we have the game tomorrow, then Chelsea on Sunday, Leeds United on Tuesday, then Stoke away on the following Saturday. Obviously the squad will be used but first of all we are giving a lot of consideration to Benfica. I have a few things to think about. But it wouldn’t worry me at all to play the [same] team that is doing well.”
Once again, the romance of European competition has captured Ferguson’s heart, with the United boss hoping to improve on last season’s run to the final. Indeed, while three finals in the past four years presents a huge achievement for the Scot, two crushing defeats to Barcelona still weigh heavily. It’s a challenge that Ferguson believes United is now closer to meeting, having seen his side begin the new campaign in such positive fashion.
“It’s always the challenge for us,” added Ferguson, who was in a jovial mood ahead of United’s eighth European Cup meeting with the Portuguese giants.
“We’re coming closer all the time to getting another trophy. The consistency has been very, very good over last few years. That’s a good guide to the standard we are in Europe and also the progress we’re making. I think the last three years we haven’t lost an away game, apart from the finals. Of course we want to improve, that’s the drive of every coach and player, to improve. We hope we can improve. The most important thing is to win it – that’s the improvement that we really do want.
“It is different winning the Champions League in the present day than it was 30 years ago. All the best teams are in Europe; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Villarreal from Spain, Benfica and Porto from Portugal. Ourselves, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City. It is a very difficult tournament to win now. That is why I am pleased with the progress my team has made because you can see the consistency has been the hallmark of our game in the last few years.”
With Ferdinand rested as a precaution, Ferguson may restore Chris Smalling to United’s starting line-up, with Phil Jones moving inside despite the highly successful showing at right-back against Bolton Wanderers at the weekend. Meanwhile, the Scot may bring both Carrick and Fletcher into central midfield, despite Anderson’s positive start to the season.
Unbeaten away from Old Trafford for three seasons, Ferguson’s team has found a highly successful, if sometimes negative way of playing on the road in European competition. This may colour Ferguson’s selection should the Scot choose to implement a three-man midfield for United’s first European game of the season. Indeed, although Benfica finished some way behind Porto at the head of the Primera Liga last season, Ferguson is aware of the talent still available to Jorge Jesus.
“We know all about Pablo Aimar,” added Sir Alex.
“Aimar played against us for Valencia a few years ago, he is a very talented player. [Ezequiel] Garay and Luisao at the back are also very experienced, good players. It won’t be easy for us; it will be a difficult game. But it will be difficult for Benfica too.”
Once again United will rely on Wayne Rooney as both creator and goalscorer. The 25-year-old Scouser has scored 10 goals in six competitive games for club and country this season, including two successive hat-tricks in the Premier League. The triple brought warm praise from Benfica coach Jesus, who compared the England striker to often more lauded Brazilians and Argentinians.
It’s a comparison Ferguson welcomes, although the Scot is unlikely to add a ‘ninho’ to the £30 million former Evertonian just yet.
”Wayne is a typical British player,” Ferguson added.
“But there have been British players who have great qualities that made them great players – [Paul] Gascoigne, George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
”Look at Pele. ‘He was a very aggressive attacker as well who could look after himself. So can Rooney. There are similarities that way in strength, speed and determination. But he is white, completely white. The similarities are that the boy has great courage. He wants to play all the time. He has incredible stamina. These are added extras to the talent he has.”
Jesus’ team, meanwhile, is refreshed, with the coach having rested key players Aimar and Nolito for the 2-1 win over Vitória de Guimarães at the weekend. Nolito, a summer signing from Barcelona, has scored five in as many games this season and has formed a potent partnership with Óscar Cardozo. The strike pair is complimented in the starting line-up by summer signings Ezequiel Garay and Axel Witsel, who joined after Benfica pocketed around €30 million for Real Madrid bound defender Fábio Coentrão.
“The Champions League is the maximum for any player,” Jesus said told UEFA.com.
“My experience is that whether you are playing Manchester United or Basel, the players’ motivation is the same. When you start the match and hear the Champions League anthem, the player is already so charged with adrenaline because he feels he is playing with the very best. Every player is super-concentrated, super-motivated, and will do everything to be at the highest possible level.”
History points to the sternest of tests for Jesus’ men, with United having won six of the clubs’ seven fixtures in this competition, including the 1968 final. However, few Reds will forget Benfica’s 2-1 Lisbon victory in 2005 that eliminated Ferguson’s team at the group stage. Five United players – Ferdinand, Park, Giggs, Rooney and Fletcher – remain from that game, one of the most dismal of Ferguson’s tenure.
Benfica is also seeking a seventh successive home victory in Europe, having already beaten Trabzonspor AŞ and FC Twente in the play-offs; a record of which Ferguson is understandably respectful.
Benfica versus Manchester United, Champions League, Estádio da Luz, Wednesday 12 September 2011, 7.45pm.
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Guilherme Moraes Artur; Emerson, Luisao, Garay, Pereira; Garcia, Witsel; Aimar, Gaitan, Nolito; Cardozo. Subs from: Eduardo, Jardel, Amorim, Matic, Cesar, Saviola, Jara.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Evans, Jones, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fletcher, Young; Rooney; hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Giggs, Anderson, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Pogba.
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)