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SL Benfica and Manchester United FC meet at the Estádio da Luz in a pivotal encounter that will decide both teams' UEFA Champions League fate. Just two points separate Group D's four sides going into Matchday 6 and victory for either Benfica or United in Lisbon will secure their place in the knockout rounds at the other's expense.
Benfica have suffered a spate of injuries in the build-up to the game, with captain Simão, Fabrizio Miccoli, Manuel Fernandes, Giorgios Karagounis and José Moreira all sidelined. But coach Ronald Koeman is determined to stay focused on the task in hand and believes his makeshift team have what it takes to escape a congested group. "The injuries have obviously reduced my options," he said, "but it's far more important to prepare well than to dwell on players that are unavailable."
The Portuguese Liga club managed that to an extent on Saturday when they beat CS Marítimo, but the precariousness of that 1-0 triumph has prompted Koeman to tinker with his side. Geovanni is likely to replace Andrei Kariaka in midfield, as the attack-minded Brazilian's coach anticipates a close contest. "The match is going to be very tough for both teams," Koeman said. "All four sides in the group have a chance to qualify. We started as underdogs but we're still here fighting."
'Nothing else matters'
United defeated their hosts 2-1 at Old Trafford on Matchday 2 despite a host of injuries, and Koeman is wary of the threat a stronger lineup poses. "United are at full strength this time," he said. "Last time they weren't and they still won so it's difficult to say what will happen." The Dutchman's United counterpart, Sir Alex Ferguson, is far more assured, saying: "We need to win this game, nothing else matters.
"It'll be a difficult match and Benfica are a good team. It's the last game before the next stage and crucial for both sides. Portugal is a footballing country with people that love football and that makes this a special game." The fixture has added spice for United's Cristiano Ronaldo, and the former Sporting Clube de Portugal winger is unsure what to expect on his return to his homeland.
"I don't know how the Benfica fans will react to me," said the 20-year-old. "But my principal concern is to help the team and play well so we can reach our goal of winning this game. I'm in good shape and hope that continues." Ronaldo was in inspired form at the weekend, appearing as a second-half substitute against Portsmouth FC to help turn a one-goal United lead into a comfortable 3-0 victory.
That kept Sir Alex's side second in the English Premiership, while providing fitting tribute to the late George Best. The legendary Northern Ireland winger offers inspiration to his successors in the United shirt this week, as many consider his finest hour to have come at the old Estádio da Luz. Leading 3-2 from the first leg of their 1965/66 European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final, a tough trip to Benfica stood between United and the last four.
Within 15 minutes Best had effectively ended the tie, scoring two goals as United went on to win 5-1 on the night. Sir Alex would doubtless settle for similar, but Benfica have made a habit of overcoming adversity in this campaign and will do everything possible to leapfrog third-placed United and move into Group D's top two positions.
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