After an understandable preoccupation with the past in recent days, as George Best was laid to rest, Manchester United fly out to confront the future today - with Cristiano Ronaldo pledging that the need to defeat Benfica in Lisbon tomorrow will concentrate minds fully.
A boyhood Benfica fan who previously played for their city rivals, Sporting, Ronaldo believes he will be greeted affectionately in a sold-out Estadio da Luz. Given that both sides have to win to reach the knock-out stage of the Champions' League, that may prove wishful thinking.
"It will be great to go back and I think I'll get a really warm reception," Ronaldo said. "But our focus must be on the result." Referring to Saturday's 3-0 win over Portsmouth, the 20-year-old winger said United were heartened by the manner of their third successive win since Best's death. He said: "We played very well and the victory helped morale."
United's last Group D fixture is poised to define their season. Failure to beat the club for whom Best saved some of his most devastating displays would probably leave the Uefa Cup as the principal trophy objective for Ronaldo and his colleagues. For a club with their traditions and self-image, such a predicament is unthinkable in December.
United have not won away in Europe for more than two years but Sir Alex Ferguson hopes that Best's inspirational example, along with the return to form and fitness of several contributors to more recent heroics on foreign fields, can see Benfica swept aside again.
Paul Scholes, who scored his first goal this season against Portsmouth, and Ryan Giggs, who made his reappearance in Best's old left-wing berth after recovering from a fractured cheekbone, will be key figures. United's new captain, Gary Neville, is also set to join the squad after being rested at the weekend.
Wayne Rooney has been singled out lately as the most likely inheritor of Best's mantle. That responsibility once fell to Giggs, of course, yet Ferguson is realistic enough to realise he is unlikely to witness the kind of virtuosity the Northern Irishman showed 40 seasons ago as United won 5-1 at Benfica. Provided they go through, he will not complain.
The Old Trafford manager sent his brother, Martin, to watch their opponents gain a first win in seven matches on Sunday, 1-0 at Maritimo. Ronald Koeman's side lie sixth, although the scouting report will have warned against the threat of Nuno Gomes, the Portuguese league's top scorer. Benfica will advance if they beat United, despite starting in bottom place.
In mitigation, Koeman points to serious injury concerns and claims he could be without six or seven first choices tomorrow.Reuse content