Date:Tuesday December 5 2006
United managed to make this final encounter a decisive one. The Reds started the group in blazing fashion, winning three out of three but they've been stumbling badly since that, losing 1-0 in Copenhagen and Glasgow. These defeats mean qualification from the group stage has gone down right to the wire now, just as a year ago.
Obviously, there are clear differences between the last season's disaster and the current situation. First and foremost, the crunch game will now take place at Old Trafford, not in Lisbon where the Reds have won anyway in September. The second, this time we don't need anything else than a draw. (It would have been enough last year but we had not been sure about that ahead of the game).
I think we do not have to fear. We are a much better team than last year when we were struggling in the Champions League throughout the group stage and we were simply not good enough. This time, we've thrown away games we were dominating, we were playing well and now we should seal qualification.
It's been well documented what a disaster it would be to fail to qualify for the second season in a row. It would almost certainly cost a top-seed ranking in next season's competition so we must be wary. But, considering United's current form, I simply cannot see us losing.
Sir Alex Ferguson was confident ahead of tomorrow's crunch game, saying he fully believes his side will win the game but he stressed that United still had the depressing habit of doing everything the hard way.
'I know we will do it,' he said.
'But why do my players take us all right to the edge so often?
'It is as if the make-up of the club has a built-in requirement to take the difficult route.
'When you look at the history of our club, we tend to keep our supporters on a knife-edge. It seems like there is a certain enjoyment in it.'
His counterpart Fernando Santos was quietly optimistic about his team's chances.
'It can be considered a real final, a game of all or nothing,' he said.
'We will face a great team but I believe we can win. With a little luck, which is also necessary in soccer, we will be able to score and move ahead.'
United have no fresh injuries so Park Ji-sung remains to be our only absentee. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has recovered from a hamstring injury and is set to make the bench.
He's bound to score now in the Champions League as more than two years have passed since he had done it. This game provides a perfect stage for him to end the long drought.
Italian striker Fabrizio Miccoli has recovered from injury whilst Nuno Gomes, Katsouranis and Luisao have all shaken off knocks to be available. Fernando Santos can field his strongest line-up tomorrow.
He scored with a superb freekick at Old Trafford last year and contributed to dismiss Liverpool in the second round.
United played against Portuguese opponents seven times before and won seven, drew one of these games. Benfica's visits to England were largely fruitless: they lost eight out of ten games. Last year's corresponding encounter finished 2-1, with goals from Giggsy, Simao Sabrosa and Ruud.
3-1 to United, Rooney to score.
The Manchester derby to come - surely I don't need to say more?
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Date:Tuesday December 5 2006
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