Benfica welcome José Mourinho’s Manchester United to the Estádio da Luz tomorrow with the Portuguese champions in desperate need of a positive result to keep their hopes alive of staying in the Champions League beyond Christmas.
United remain unbeaten in all competitions this season and appear to be on the way back to past glories after several years in the doldrums.
Manchester United expert Nick Poole gives PortuGOAL the lowdown on United’s team, and also talks about the strong Portuguese connections at the Old Trafford club, from the current coach to Joel Pereira, Cristiano Ronaldo and more.
Manchester United’s results have been near perfect this season. Has their performance level matched those results?
They’ve certainly deserved to win the games they have (Southampton away possibly excepted). It would be fair to say a few of the bigger wins have flattered them slightly, with goals often coming in late flurries against tired opponents forced to come out and attack, but they’ve generally controlled games and then killed them off far better than the team we saw last season.
Ones to watch - Who are United’s star men?
Romelu Lukaku is an obvious choice, having scored plenty of goals already (including in both CL games so far). The Belgian striker has added a new dimension to the United attack with his movement and penalty box threat and that’s opened things up for others. Fellow new signing Nemanja Matic has been a revelation as well - Reds and neutrals alike are still struggling to understand why Chelsea let him move to Old Trafford. He’s been in the mix for man of the match in nearly every game and had helped to liberate Paul Pogba before the latter got injured.
Elsewhere, David de Gea is rightfully being hailed in many quarters as the best keeper in the world right now, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have formed quite the double act on the left wing and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while often frustrating, has consistently come up with goals and assists so far and has typically saved his best form for Europe.
Strong points/weak points – what must Benfica beware of and what can they exploit?
Strengths: The interplay between Lukaku and the three behind him has been excellent at times this season, especially if given any space on the counter. Rashford and Martial have given right-backs nightmares all season and Mkhitaryan/Mata can pick teams apart if given half a chance. Physically United have too much for most teams. Mourinho’s built the sort of team he’s been known for with height, pace and strength all over the pitch.
Weaknesses: there aren’t too many, but Benfica might be playing United at a good time. The absence of Pogba robs United of creativity in central midfield and the potential absence of Eric Bailly gives the defence a shakier look (neither Chris Smalling or Victor Lindelöf have looked convincing), especially as left-back has been a problem position too. Tactically, United can still occasionally be prone to settling on a slender lead (or even at 0-0 in a tough game) and becoming too passive.
Formation and playing style – what system do United usually play and how do you expect them to set up on Wednesday? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
4-2-3-1 has been the usual formation but Mourinho has given 3-4-2-1 a look in pre-season and used it to great effect in the last European away game at CSKA, so we could well see that again, especially with the current injuries. Not sure you can really label United as an attacking or defensive team. They’ll certainly look to attack and dominate weaker opposition but they’ll also often prioritise keeping it tight and not losing against the bigger teams. With six points already on the board, this being (theoretically at least) United’s toughest group game and a tough run of fixtures coming up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see United go about this game pragmatically and be happy enough with a draw.
What are the local press saying about United’s Champions League chances?
Not a lot, yet. There’s definitely a sense of ‘United are back’ in domestic terms, with a title challenge now expected and standing as one of the main Premier League contenders certainly re-established, but I don’t think too much is expected from the Reds in the Champions League. They’ve taken a real step forward but I think everyone is aware it’ll take another big step to really compete with the likes of Real Madrid so there’s no real hype as yet.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think United come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
Given the state of play in the group and United’s form, there’s certainly a confidence there, albeit a little less swagger than a few weeks ago after a couple of key injuries. The only concern may be getting back into an attacking rhythm after the international break and then a very conservative display at Anfield at the weekend - perhaps not ideal for another game where they may be content to keep things right.
What do you think the result will be?
I can see a relatively tight, cagey, possibly outright dull draw - maybe 1-1.
Extras – Manchester United’s Portuguese connections
Mourinho is a source of pride for Portuguese people given his achievements. Do you believe he can repeat the success he has had at previous clubs at Old Trafford? In your opinion does he have the same hunger?
The hunger absolutely seems to be there. He’s got what looks like a Mourinho team assembled now - maybe still one or two signings short of where he wants to be but one he knows he can work with, which wasn’t always the case last season. He’s got the club pointed in the right direction again after a bleak few years and the ‘lesser’ trophies last season were a nice stepping stone, but he’s got his work cut out to repeat those league and CL triumphs of his and the club’s past. Domestically Manchester City have the look of the strongest Premier League side in some time so maybe his best chance will come in Europe, where you’d give him a fair chance against anyone in that cup-tie environment. A lot depends of course on whether he sticks around beyond the now-standard three years.
I read the other day that despite his record-breaking achievements for the Red Devils, Wayne Rooney is not held in as much esteem among the fans as Cristiano Ronaldo is. True? If so, how come?
Probably true, yes. It’ll vary from fan to fan but you’re certainly more likely to hear Ronaldo’s name being sung at games these days. It defies logic in many ways. Rooney racked up 13 seasons, smashed records, won everything and ultimately left at our behest. Ronaldo had just six seasons at Old Trafford, half of those very much as a work in progress and then engineered a move away.
Rooney’s standing took a big hit though from rows with Sir Alex, attempts to move to Manchester City and his dramatic decline in the last few seasons. Cristiano meanwhile - we always expected him to move on sooner or later, but the 2/3 years before he did will live long in the memory. He was the best in the world, the best most Reds had seen at the club and produced a period of sustained, sensational brilliance. He was the talisman and inspiration behind an incredibly successful and entertaining few seasons and I guess there’s an emotional connection from that that has put him on something of a pedestal with United supporters.
Joel Pereira was very impressive during his loan spell here in Portugal at Belenenses last season. How is he progressing and how highly do you rate him?
I rate him very highly, but more importantly José Mourinho seems to as well by all accounts. Being kept at the club as third goalkeeper is testament to how well he’s progressed but also arguably something of a shame. He’d probably benefit much more by being out playing regular football. Mourinho has tried to get him involved as much as you can realistically involve your third choice keeper though and continues to speak highly of him.
He has all the attributes to make a very fine goalkeeper. The issue for him, as with any young keeper at United, is that he has David de Gea ahead of him, arguably the best around and still young in goalkeeping terms. If United can continue to fend off Real’s interest in DDG, Joel will probably need to move on sooner rather than later for the good of his career. Wherever he ends up, I’d be very surprised if he’s not a future international.
How good a prospect is Angel Gomes, and although I realise this is difficult to know, do you think there is any chance his cousin Nani can persuade him to opt to play for Portugal?!
Angel’s a huge talent, certainly the one most United fans have the highest hopes for to break through in the next couple of years. He’s outstanding technically and has so much to his game creatively - the balance, speed and outrageous skill to beat players at close quarters but also the vision and weight of pass to pick defences apart if they stand off him. Whether or not he’s the type of player Mourinho will put enough belief in is probably the big question.
As for his international allegiance, he seems to love representing England and regularly captains them at youth level so I’d make them big favourites, but there’s definitely an obvious fondness for Portugal there just from observing him on social media so who knows? If Ronaldo has a few more years in him and Nani stays in the international picture the lure to play with them might be tough to resist.
Our thanks to Nick, who you can follow on Twitter at @ManUnitedYouth.