Monday, November 26, 2007

Champions League, Manchester United: A Sporting Chance

ABola out of Portugal is reporting that Sir Alex Ferguson hopes Sporting isn't awed by its surroundings tomorrow at Old Trafford, and steps up its game against Manchester United in the Champions League. Ferguson, however, is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He knows that a win tomorrow puts United in first to stay in the group and improves its seeding in the knockout stage. It also renders United's trip to Roma for the final group stage match Dec. 12 meaningless.

This is what he wants more than anything considering what's happening in the Premier League at that time. United takes on Liverpool on Dec. 16, and would like nothing better than not to have to play his best side four days prior in European play.

United-Sporting is tomorrow's ESPN match and all signs point to a big United win. Sporting is rattled by injuries and is slumping, 10 points behind leaders F.C. Porto, which travel to Anfield Wednesday.

United, meanwhile, is on Arsenal's heels in the Premier League and scoring almost at will, especially in Europe.

But Sporting played United tough in the Champions League opener in Lisbon before falling 1-0 on a Cristiano Ronaldo goal. Sporting needs to show some heart tomorrow to pull out a fortunate win. A win in the final matchday against Dynamo Kiev could catapult the Leoes into the knockout stage ahead of Roma. That too, however, could depend on Ferguson, who swears that he will put his best team on the pitch against Roma should the game impact Sporting and Roma's progress and in Europe.

And herein lies the trouble with the Champions League. There's little incentive in this format for the leaders to play at full strength later in the Match Day stages. This opens many teams to speculation about their motivations in these matches, and exposes the whole process to allegations of shady machinations for certain positioning and influencing which teams advance. Makes a guy harken for the days when the Champions League was just about the champions, and it was knockout play from the get-go.

So here's hoping Sporting beats United and Roma loses tomorrow to Dynamo. For selfish reasons, it makes this group a little more interesting for at least one more round.

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