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Benfica baptism for United's new breed

Manchester United's new generation of players will bid to follow in some illustrious footsteps when they open their Champions League campaign against historic rivals Benfica on Wednesday.

sports Updated: Sep 13, 2011 12:27 IST

Manchester United's new generation of players will bid to follow in some illustrious footsteps when they open their Champions League campaign against historic rivals Benfica on Wednesday.

Forty-five years ago, a United side spearheaded by George Best tore apart Benfica 5-1 to book their place in the European Cup semifinals and confirm the club's re-emergence as a force on the continental scene.

Irrepressible on that March night in Lisbon, Best claimed a brace of goals inside the first 15 minutes but finished on the losing side in the semifinals when United fell to Partizan Belgrade.

United would not be denied for long, however, and two years later Best was on target again as Matt Busby's team beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time at Wembley to become England's first ever European champions.

Busby's triumph validated his decision to retain his faith in young players as he rebuilt the club after the horror of the 1958 Munich air disaster, and the present-day United line-up reflects the same conviction in youth.

Despite only making three close-season signings, the English champions look a completely different team to the one that was outclassed by Barcelona in last season's Champions League final in May.

New signings Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea have adapted quickly, while Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck slipped seamlessly into the team following loan spells at Wigan and Sunderland respectively.

United have not been unduly inconvenienced by injuries either, with 21-year-old Chris Smalling and 19-year-old Jones smoothly plugging gaps in the back four left by the absences of more seasoned defenders.

United have returned to Benfica's iconic Estadio da Luz twice since that memorable night in 1966.

A 2-1 defeat in December 2005 dumped United out of the Champions League at the group phase for the first since 1994, marking the nadir of the transitional period that spanned the gap between United's English titles in 2003 and 2007.

Revenge arrived the following season, however, with United consigning Benfica to an early exit of their own with a 3-1 win at Old Trafford after the teams were drawn together again at the same stage of the competition.

"Benfica are always a handful," said United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, who has hinted that he may also call on some of his more experienced players for Wednesday's game.

"We always expect a difficult game there and I watched a couple of their matches away from home and they were absolutely brilliant."

United arrive in the Portuguese capital looking to extend an 18-month unbeaten record away from home in European competition and having thrashed Bolton Wanderers 5-0 on Saturday to remain top of the Premier League.

Ferguson's men reached last season's final without conceding a single goal on the road but Benfica are an intimidating prospect on their own turf and are chasing a seventh straight home victory in European competition.

"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," said Benfica coach Jorge Jesus.

"So there isn't much difference between Manchester United or, say, Basel; the players' motivation is at the maximum for both."

Cast into the shadows by Andre Villas-Boas' all-conquering Porto last season, Jesus' side are currently second in the Portuguese top flight -- two points behind Porto -- after winning 2-1 at home to Guimaraes on Saturday.

United will be without Welbeck (hamstring) and Cleverley, who damaged foot ligaments in a challenge from Bolton's Kevin Davies on Saturday, while defenders Jonny Evans (hip) and Patrice Evra (kneecap) are both doubtful.

The hosts are expected to be close to full strength, having welcomed back Ezequiel Garay, Maxi Pereira, Nolito and Ruben Amorim from injury on Saturday.

First Published: Sep 13, 2011 12:18 IST