It is for matches like these, away from home against fluid, resourceful opposition, that Sir Alex Ferguson paid Bayern Munich £18m for Owen Hargreaves in the summer. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that when Manchester United take to the field against Sporting Lisbon tonight, Hargreaves will be at home in Cheshire, watching on television.
The England midfielder, a Champions League winner with Bayern in 2001, was yesterday denied a European debut for United due to the thigh strain which also ruled him out of England duty last week.
Gary Neville, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and long-term injury victims Mikaël Silvestre, Park Ji Sung and Ben Foster are also absent, but Wayne Rooney did travel and may make his first appearance since sustaining a broken foot on the first day of the season. Rooney is likely to be on the bench but he admitted he is desperate to return to action again.
"I've been dying to play and I let the manager know I was ready. I feel I could have played a few weeks ago and I'm a bit disappointed I haven't. But it was probably best in the long run."
United have only met Sporting once in competition, winning 4-1 at Old Trafford then losing 5-0 in Lisbon. But as that was in the European Cup-winners Cup 47 seasons ago it is hardly relevant. More significant is the friendly in 2003. A little-known 17-year-old winger was so impressive in Sporting's 3-1 win that Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs spent time on the flight home imploring Ferguson to sign him. Within weeks a £12m fee had been exchanged for Cristiano Ronaldo.
"It is always difficult when you sign a boy of that age," Ferguson said yesterday. "He has to grow and develop and also get used to living in another country, which is never easy. Under those circumstances, the rapidity of his rise has been absolutely amazing. Now we are seeing a maturity in his performance of someone in their mid-20s."
Ronaldo has been venomously abused when returning to Portugal to play Porto and Benfica but hopes for a more friendly reception tonight. Ronaldo regards Sporting as his "second home", after Madeira, the island of his birth, and is unsure whether to celebrate should he score. "I played here for seven years, I have a lot of friends here and I always wanted to come back," he said. "I know people like me here. At Benfica they barrack me, here my reception will be good. I am very excited about the game. But however much I like the club, my first colours now are red and I hope to win with Manchester United."
Ferguson is more concerned with how the referee treats Ronaldo than the supporters. The official is the German Herbert Fandel who has previously dismissed Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in European competition. When asked about Fandel, Ferguson buried his head in his hands before adding, probably tongue in cheek: "We need a supply of Mogadon [a sedative]."
Ferguson was already concerned about the way Premier League officials are treating Ronaldo. He was booked for diving at the weekend on his return from a three-match ban for head-butting Portsmouth's Richard Hughes. Ferguson has reviewed both incidents on video and feels Ronaldo was unjustly dealt with.
"It is a worry for us," said Ferguson. "It is almost as though Cristiano is being punished for his success.
"There is no question in my mind there is an unfairness about it all. The one on Saturday was even more ludicrous. Quite clearly, Cristiano was tripped on the edge of the area. Why would Cristiano go down when he can score?"
A win would be United's 100th in the European Cup. Of greater concern to Ferguson, given the club's poor away form in this competition in recent seasons, is the need for a positive result to create a platform for a successful campaign. To do so without Hargreaves would be telling.
Sporting Lisbon (probable): Stojkovic; Ronny, Gladstone, Anderson Polga, Abel; Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Izmailov, Romagnoli; Liedson, Derlei.
Manchester United (probable): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs; Tevez, Saha.
Referee: H Fandel (Germany).
Sporting's player to watch
Joao Moutinho Second youngest captain in the club's history, a 21-year-old midfielder known for his box-to-box play and pinpoint passing. Recently signed a new deal keeping him at Lisbon until 2013.Reuse content