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Coach Jorge Jesus insists SL Benfica are not daunted by the prospect of facing Manchester United FC with the adrenaline rush of playing in Europe's top competition giving his players a huge lift. "The Champions League," he told UEFA.com, "is the maximum for any player."
Encountering a side who have reached three of the last four finals and who are unbeaten on their European travels in 18 months might inspire fear, but Jorge Jesus, who has overseen ten UEFA Champions League matches since joining Benfica in 2009, is adamant his players will only be motivated by the arrival of the English titleholders. "My experience is that whether you are playing Manchester United or Basel, the players' motivation is the same.
When you start the match and hear the Champions League anthem, the player is already so charged with adrenaline because he feels he is playing with the very best – so there isn't much difference between Manchester United or, say, Basel; the players' motivation is at the maximum for both. They are playing in the Champions League, and the Champions League is the maximum. Every player is super-concentrated, super-motivated, and will do everything to be at the highest possible level."
Twice European champions, Benfica have reached a further five finals – one of which was lost to United back in 1968 - and though it is 21 years since they last graced the competition's showpiece, their run to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals last season suggests they may be ready to make their mark again.
"All four teams in the group have a chance to get through," said Jorge Jesus, who welcomed back Ezequiel Garay, Maxi Pereira, Nolito and Ruben Amorim from injury on Saturday as the Eagles beat Vitória SC 2-1. "Theoretically, Benfica and Manchester United are the strongest sides, but I think the other two [Basel and FC Oţelul Galaţi] have similar ambitions, and believe they can get through this group phase."
For Jorge Jesus's opposite number, anything short of another appearance in the knockout stage would constitute a failure, but Sir Alex Ferguson is relishing the prospect of once more pitting his side against the finest clubs on the continent in a competition he believes is improving year on year.
"When I started as a coach at Aberdeen FC, and we got into the European Cup in 1980, only the winners of the leagues were involved, so you always hoped you would get [drawn against] a Real Madrid or a Barcelona, but it was less achievable than it is today. The format of the Champions League is fantastic, from my point of view; you have got all the best teams there, all the teams you dreamed about playing against.
"Since the Champions League started, I think we've played AC Milan eight times, we've played Real Madrid six times and Barcelona maybe seven times," he added. "
It's absolutely fantastic: the atmosphere, the challenge, the different philosophies, the different cultures; that's the speciality of the Champions League."
In recent weeks United have developed a speciality of their own: big wins. A 5-0 victory at Bolton Wanderers FC established a new Premier League record of 18 goals in the opening four matches, even if it did come at the expense of injuries to Tom Cleverley and Jonny Evans. Jorge Jesus and Benfica will not be cowed, however.
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