Usually at this time of the Champions League year, Sir Alex Ferguson is asked if he would prefer to finish first or second in the group. The Manchester United manager has a stock answer which he employs as frequently as his statement that 10 points will see his club through to the knockout stages. In essence, it is that it seldom matters.
Not this time, though. If Arsenal and Chelsea qualify as group winners, the likelihood is that a Manchester United side, whose Champions League displays thus far have either been sterile or slipshod, will meet one of the big beasts of European football – be it Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich – in the round of 16.
There is a chance that finishing second could see the club paired with Apoel Nicosia, the unfancied leaders of Group G, but that is a risk not even a lifelong gambler like Ferguson may be prepared to take.
The determination of the Uefa president, Michel Platini, to introduce more clubs to the Champions League who have actually won their own championship has given a platform to clubs such as Romania's Otelul Galati, who are on course to finish pointless. Should that happen, then the three other teams in their group could end up with 11 points.
A fixture between Manchester United and Benfica comes laden with history, although Ferguson preferred to dwell on the immediate future, arguing that, although Wayne Rooney had missed training, he would be available to face a side who have still not lost this season.
However, the fact that only once since 1994 have Benfica qualified from their group tells a story of a side that too often fail to match their hype. The team of Di Maria and Luiz that flattened Everton two years ago was taken apart in the Europa League quarter-finals by a Liverpool side close to collapse under Rafael Benitez.
"Benfica will play with a lot of care because they know they are away. Their strength is in midfield and, if we can control that, we will be fine," said Luis Nani, although the midfielder admitted his record against them for Sporting Lisbon was merely "OK". Given the complexities of the group, OK may not be quite enough.Reuse content