The warm glow that once came over Manchester United supporters at the mention of Benfica gave way to an icy blast of reality last December. Defeat in the Portuguese capital condemned United to a pre-Christmas exit from the Champions' League and was surely on Sir Alex Ferguson's mind when the manager admitted they had let down their fans in Europe. Tonight, in more ways than one, is about setting the record straight.
It was in a 5-1 triumph at the Estadio da Luz that George Best enjoyed arguably his finest hour-and-a-half, while Eusebio and Co were also the victims when Matt Busby claimed the European Cup at Wembley. Benfica's 2-1 victory last year was their first over United who have not won in eight away matches in Europe and Ferguson knows a repetition would raise the spectre of another autumn of unfulfilled promise.
The United manager is expected to restore Louis Saha in tandem with Wayne Rooney after injury, having had to rely on Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo to supply the cutting edge in their Premiership match at Reading on Saturday. Saha has scored four times this season, two of the goals coming against Celtic in their opening Champions' League group fixture.
However, the defender who will probably mark Rooney, Luisao, suggested yesterday that Benfica had been encouraged by United's recent stumbles in the Premiership.
The Brazilian tempted fate by suggesting that United had carried a greater attacking threat before Ruud van Nistelrooy decamped to Real Madrid, at the same time acknowledging Saha's prowess.
"Until a week on Sunday, United seemed unbeatable, but after the way they fell down against Arsenal we can see that they're not invincible," Luisao said. "This has opened up to us how we can compete with them. Rooney is not on form, though we can't rely on that. They will come at us slightly calmer after beating Celtic at home, but if they relax they will be made to pay, because for us this match is like a final.
"I thought United were more dangerous when they had Van Nistelrooy, but Saha is scoring goals, so our defence are prepared for a lot of work."
Ferguson, for his part, is untroubled by questions about Rooney's form and is backing him to come good. "I am not concerned about Wayne's form at all," he said. "All he needs is games. I have made the point a number of times about how little football the lad has played over the past six months. He did well at Reading. He showed a big improvement. There was far more sharpness from him and I am sure that progress will continue."
Saha's colleague, Darren Fletcher, identified Saha's sharpness as a factor that could make the difference. "Last time we had a lot of players out injured and others not 100 per cent fit," the Scot said. "Things are different now. We're ready for it, and Louis is on fire. We're hoping and praying he stays fit."
Benfica (probable) (4-2-3-1): Quim; Alcides, Luisao, Anderson, Leo; Petit, Katsouranis; Paulo Jorge, Nuno Assis, Simao; Nuno Gomes.
Manchester United (probable) (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Neville; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney, Saha.
Referee: F de Bleeckere (Bel).Reuse content