Manchester United will attempt to end Benfica’s unbeaten start to the season here Tuesday as the English club bid to book their place in the Champions League knockout phase – with Phil Jones hailed as crucial to the Premier League title holders’ recent form.
The English and Portuguese giants play out the latest instalment of a decades-old rivalry at Old Trafford knowing that a win for either side will almost certainly assure them of topping Group C.
United had to come from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw in the two teams’ meeting in Lisbon earlier in the group, and Benfica remain unbeaten in 20 matches across all competitions this year.
United, who famously defeated Benfica at Wembley in 1968 to win their first European crown, head into the tie on the back of five straight victories.
Significantly, those five wins have all been matched by five cleansheets, a fact that signals United’s defence is on the mend after being torn apart by Manchester City last month.
Versatile summer signing Phil Jones has been a key man in the Red Devils’ promising start to the season – and could play either across the back line or anchor the midfield tonight.
Jones played a defensive midfield role for England in recent friendly victories over Spain and Sweden, and Scotland captain Darren Fletcher is unsurprised by the 19-year-old’s meteoric rise through the ranks.
“He has done fantastic and shown what a real quality player he is,” said Fletcher. “He has performed fantastically at full-back and watching the two England games he did really well in them as well.
“He has shown real quality and proved why the manager snapped him up.”
“Keeping clean sheets has been an integral part of our success and we have been careless with our defending,” United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said after watching his team score a 1-0 victory over Swansea last weekend.
Ferguson said the win over Swansea reflected a focus that had been missing from United’s early games this season.
“The concentration we showed is exactly the concentration we need back in the team,” he said.
While United’s defence is causing him fewer sleepless nights, it remains to be seen how Ferguson will set up his midfield against Benfica.
Will Wayne Rooney return to the team after missing training on Monday – and if so, will he be deployed in midfield or attack?