Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Worlds apart, but United and Lille in same boat
But United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will have to forget past glories and current spending power and share the same, anxious feelings as his Lille counterpart Claude Puel on Wednesday night.
Both clubs are among the four that are bidding for a place in the final 16 of the Champions League, and both have their backs to the wall.
While Lille tough it out against already-qualified AC Milan in a rather tricky group H, United's task is comparatively simple.
After their shock 1-0 defeat to Celtic a fortnight ago, Ferguson's Premiership leaders now need at least a draw against Benfica at Old Trafford to avoid disastrously failing to make the last 16 for the second year in a row.
Adding a psychological edge to the task is the fact that it was Benfica who eliminated United at this stage last year.
Benfica coach Fernando Santos, having seen his side beat cross city rivals Sporting Lisbon 2-0 on Friday, has got his troops fired up for a match which they must win to have any chance of qualifying.
"The match against Manchester United is a real final for us. We believe victory is possible and trust we will also have a bit of luck," said Santos.
"Qualifying is very open because United are not as strong in recent weeks as they have been."
Benfica's Italian striker Fabrizio Miccoli, who scored twice in the 3-1 win over FC Copenhagen but was an injury doubt, has recovered in time.
Ferguson should have available most of the team who have opened up a six-point Premiership lead over second placed Chelsea.
However even the enticement of ending Chelsea's two-year domestic reign will leave a sour taste if United exit Europe's premier club competition before it really gets started.
Ferguson has plenty of experience dealing with such challenges, and in the face of disaster the fiery Scot has kept his instructions plain and simple.
"This is a game you can't trifle with. It's too important for us. If we get chances we have to take them, but I think we've got a chance," he said.
Lille's bid to join fellow French side Lyon, the confirmed winners of group E, into the knockout phase for the first time is more complicated, especially as they will have to do without their talented 'keeper, Tony Sylva.
The Senegalese international broke his finger in the 3-1 league win away at Nancy on Sunday, leaving Puel with the hope that his number two, Gregory Malicki, can help silence the San Siro stadium, which will see the return of Brazilian forward Kaka to Carlo Ancelotti's injury-hit side.
"We're going to have to do without Tony but Gregory Malicki will step up to the plate," said Puel, who at least in one respect can afford to lord it over Ferguson.
As a player he was part of the Monaco team which lost a Champions League semi-final in 1994 - to AC Milan.
He was then the assistant coach at Monaco when they made it to the semi-finals again, in 1998, when Juventus sent them packing back to the Principality.
Elsewhere Wednesday Arsenal will face FC Porto away in a clash which could eliminate either side from the compeition.
Both sides are level on 10 points at the top of group G, with CSKA Moskow two points behind in third.
While Arsenal and Porto could play to a draw and both qualify, a victory for either - coupled with a CSKA victory over already eliminated SV Hamburg - could spell disaster for the losing side in the Portuguese city.
In group E Lyon will host Steaua Bucharest without the injured Florent Malouda, who is suspended.
With only bragging rights left in the group, Real Madrid will face Dynamo in Kiev knowing that whatever the score they will still finish second to Lyon.