SL Benfica can spring a surprise by finishing top of UEFA Champions League Group D, according to coach Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman sees Manchester United FC's run of poor form as an opportunity for his side to take advantage, starting with three points against Villarreal CF on Wednesday.
United 'bad results'
"Manchester United started as favourites to win the group but they have had some bad results in recent times. If we win at home tomorrow, we have a chance of finishing top of the table," said Koeman. "This match is not decisive because we still have two more games to play. Nevertheless, it's important for both teams because a win - especially for us - will mean moving one step closer to qualification."
The Portuguese champions lie second in a tight section, one point behind leaders United and one above Villarreal. All four teams, including LOSC Lille Métropole of France, still believe their qualifying hopes are very much alive.
Benfica's main injury concern surrounds captain Simão, who suffered a groin strain during a midweek Portuguese Cup tie. They have sometimes looked a shadow of themselves without the incisive forward, and could only manage a 1-1 draw at A. Naval 1° Maio in his absence on Saturday. "Simão has returned to training without any problems but is still a worry for us. We'll have to wait for tomorrow [Wednesday] to find out if he can play," said Koeman.
Brazilian defender Luisão is confident Benfica can win. "We are up against good players, but we hope we can win, performing well both in defence and in attack," he said. Luisão acknowledged that he faces a difficult task shackling a potent attack containing Juan Román Riquelme, Diego Forlán and Luciano Figueroa. "Villarreal's midfielders and forwards are very dangerous and we'll have to be very careful," he said.
Nereu gets chance
Geovanni is back after missing Saturday's game through injury, but Fabrizio Miccoli is unavailable, and Carlitos and Bruno Aguiar are omitted. Both sides will play in front of a relatively inexperienced goalkeeper. Benfica's Quim is out after a hernia operation, while another Portuguese international, José Moreira, is injured. That opens the way for Rui Nereu, who played more than an hour of the match in Spain.
"Quim cannot play because he is not fit. It's a shame but there's no reason not to trust in Rui Nereu. We have to prepare with the players that are available," said Koeman. Villarreal, meanwhile, are all but certain to start without first-choice custodian Sebastián Viera, who hurt his shoulder in the 1-1 weekend draw at Club Atlético de Madrid. Mariano Barbosa of Argentina deputises for the Uruguayan.
Senna and Josico return
César Arzo has returned home with a throat infection, while Antonio Guayre is a long-term casualty, but otherwise the news is good for the visitors. Marcos Senna and Josico have both shrugged off muscle twinges and are in contention for midfield berths.
Like Koeman, visiting coach Manuel Luis Pellegrini sees this tie as a chance to underline his team's UEFA Champions League credentials. "Everyone thought Manchester United would go through easily, but we have seen that in footballing terms the differences in the group are minimal and that is reflected in the points the teams have," Pellegrini said.
"I think this game will not decide anything, as there are four teams who are separated by one point apiece. But the side who wins tomorrow will take an important step towards the last 16," the Chilean concluded.
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