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Riquelme question taxes Villarreal

Published: Wednesday 14 September 2005, 1.20CET
Villarreal CF must decide whether or not to risk Juan Román Riquelme when they take on mighty Manchester United FC in Group D on Matchday 1.
by Graham Hunter
from Vila-Real

Tournament statistics

VillarrealMan. United

Goals scored8
Attempts on target58
Attempts off target59
Fouls committed186
Yellow cards29
Red cards0

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Published: Wednesday 14 September 2005, 1.20CET

Riquelme question taxes Villarreal

Villarreal CF must decide whether or not to risk Juan Román Riquelme when they take on mighty Manchester United FC in Group D on Matchday 1.

Villarreal CF have arrived at their UEFA Champions League debut facing the problem which perpetually challenges veteran European performers like Manchester United FC, their Matchday 1 opponents in Group D.

Riquelme doubt
Juan Román Riquelme is Villarreal's most influential player but his ankle ligament strain will make his participation in the hotly-anticipated match at El Madrigal a late and difficult decision. Coach Manuel Luis Pellegrini's gamble is increased by the fact that United will play without their captain Roy Keane who has not travelled from England.

Left-footed magic
In theory that may offer Riquelme, who scored 15 league goals and eight out of eight penalties last season, more time and space for his left-footed magic. Pellegrini said: "Román is a key player for us, but not just against Manchester United. He is very hungry to play in this game yet we will not take a decision which might leave us without him in the league for a month and a half."

It is a dilemma which experienced Champions League sides face repeatedly - whether to risk group qualification by favouring their domestic competition or vice versa. But Riquelme's importance to the team he led to their highest-ever Primera División finish, third last term, and into this stage following a 4-2 aggregate victory against Everton FC, is such that it is likely the Argentinian will play.

Main story
Sir Alex Ferguson, entering his 30th year in management, agreed. "My instinct says that Riquelme will play and will be dangerous," said the Scot. "Three decades of experience tells me that he will make it and we will have to look out for him very closely." Were it not for the news of Riquelme and Keane then undoubtedly the story would be the chance for ESM Golden Shoe winner Diego Forlán to demonstrate his prolific scoring form to the club he left a year ago to move to Spain.

'Great time'
The Uruguayan, author of the clinching goal in Villarreal's defeat of Everton, would love to score - but not for selfish reasons. "I had a great time with United and I'd love a goal against them, but not for me!" he said. "This is history for my new club and we must win our first game. People have asked me if starting the group against my old team is a dream come true, but my dreams are bigger - I want to go to the final, get a goal and win!" Pellegrini agrees, saying: "This game is vital because if we win we have a chance to finish top of the group, and I have confidence in our ability to reach at least the last 16."

'Surprise finalists'
His opposite number, who dramatically won the 1999 Champions League final against FC Bayern München, understands the Villarreal coach's point of view. "Sometimes the smaller teams can do well in the Champions League as we have seen some surprise finalists in recent years," said Sir Alex. "There is a lot of pressure on the leading group of teams with all the matches they must play."

Confidence boosted
Helping Villarreal impress will be Uruguayan goalkeeper Mario Sebastián Viera on his Champions League debut. "This is a big test for us but I'm not scared of either Wayne Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooij," said Viera, his confidence boosted by a penalty save from Frédéric Kanouté in the 1-1 weekend draw with Sevilla FC.

Ronaldo return
Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to the United squad following his father's funeral and is expected to play. For Villarreal, Juan Pablo Sorín is fully fit and likely to start the match having come on as a second-half substitute at the weekend.

Last updated: 14/09/05 23.58CET