United are only warming up - Ferguson's warning to title rivals
Manchester United find themselves in unusual territory at this stage of the Champions League, but there was an ominous familiarity to Alex Ferguson's message ahead of tonight's visit of Benfica.
Although the United manager's primary focus was on the victory needed to consolidate his side's advantage in an unexpectedly tight group, you could sense him gearing up towards the traditional new-year push, which usually ends with silverware.
Quietly, methodically and efficiently, United have spent the past month successfully repairing the psychological damage of 'that' derby defeat.
While City relentlessly stride on, United's five consecutive victories -- and equally significant clean sheets in each -- is a reminder that it will take more than one heavy blow to put Ferguson on the deck.
United's form is nowhere near their invigorating best and their early toils in Europe are unusual.
Even a win against Benfica will not guarantee their progression to the knockout stages, an unthinkable prospect when Bobby Charlton hand-picked last summer's apparently inviting draw in Monaco.
But the United manager loves nothing more than seeing his side jostle their way into a position that will maintain their annual trophy challenge.
Leading the way in November has never been a priority under Ferguson. He prefers to keep the leader in sight before moving menacingly on to their shoulder and kicking on in the final straight.
"The players have addressed the situation well and the collective response has been good," Ferguson said.
"At this stage of the season what we try to do is get through to the new year near to the top. Top would be fine, but to be near the top would mean the run-in would present us with an opportunity.
"We have won five games in a row. That is momentum. We have had a few issues which, hopefully, we are gradually getting over.
"We have all worked really hard defending and, when you get the ball, you hope you produce enough football to win the match.
"Injuries always play a part. It does unsettle the balance of the team at times and sometimes we do have to rethink.
"We have Anderson and Tom Cleverley injured. Michael Carrick played his first game for a while on Saturday. Darren Fletcher has been out. We have made some changes to the team from the start of the season, which you don't envisage when you see them all fresh.
"We went through the United States pre-season tour without a single injury, and then you get hit with a list of them."
With United level on points with Benfica and only two games left, Ferguson's side need a sixth straight win tonight.
However, there was little sign of anxiety from the manager. He expects home advantage to tell against the Portuguese.
Ferguson wants to reach the knockout stage as group winners to avoid meeting Barcelona or Real Madrid. "First of all, there are certain teams there (to avoid).
"That is one issue, but the other is that second game (of the knockout tie) is at Old Trafford and that is an advantage," he said.
"It has always been our intention to finish top. To my mind, the main advantage is that we will have the return at Old Trafford. That is the bonus.
"It is a big game and we recognise it as a real European game, with Benfica's history, and the number of great games they have had in the past sticks in your memory.
"Our last encounter, we drew 1-1 over there but the performance in the first game was good, possession-wise, and I thought we deserved the result until the last 15 minutes when Benfica played quite a bit. It is a game both teams will want to win, so it should be quite an open battle."
United trained without Wayne Rooney yesterday morning. The forward was treated after suffering stud marks to his shin in the 1-0 victory over Swansea at the weekend, but is expected to start against Benfica.
"He should be okay," Ferguson said. "There are one or two other knocks. Jonny Evans has a tightness in a hamstring but it won't keep him out. Chris Smalling trained this morning but he won't play this game. He should be okay for Saturday."
Evans could start at centre-back alongside Rio Ferdinand because Nemanja Vidic is suspended.
The Serbian defender received a two-match ban after he was sent off against Romanian side Otelul Galati following a late tackle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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