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United vie for control

USUALLY at this time of the Champions League year, Alex Ferguson is asked if he would prefer to finish first or second in the group. The Manchester United manager has a stock answer which he employs as frequently as his statement that 10 points will see his club through to the knockout stages. In essence, it is that it seldom matters.

Not this time, though. If Arsenal and Chelsea qualify as group winners, the likelihood is that a Manchester United side, whose Champions League displays thus far have either been sterile or slipshod, will meet one of the big beasts of European football -- be it Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich -- in the round of 16.

There is a chance that finishing second could see the club paired with Apoel Nicosia, the unfancied leaders of Group G, but that is a risk not even a lifelong gambler like Ferguson may be prepared to take.

The determination of the UEFA president, Michel Platini, to introduce more clubs to the Champions League who have actually won their own championship has given a platform to clubs such as Romania's Otelul Galati, who are on course to finish pointless. Should that happen, then all three teams could end up with 11 points.

A fixture between Manchester United and Benfica comes laden with history, although Ferguson preferred to dwell on the immediate future, arguing that although Wayne Rooney had missed training, he would be available to face a side that has still not lost this season.

However, the fact that only once since 1994 have Benfica qualified from their group tells a story of a side that too often fails to match its hype. The team of Di Maria and Luiz that flattened Everton two years ago was taken apart in the Europa League quarter-finals by a Liverpool side close to collapse under Rafael Benitez.

"Benfica will play with a lot of care because they know they are away. Their strength is in midfield and, if we can control that, we will be fine," said Luis Nani, although the midfielder admitted his record against them for Sporting Lisbon was merely "Okay". Given the complexities of the group, okay may not be quite enough.

Meanwhile, United captain Nemanja Vidic admits that his team-mates have grown "obsessed" with the idea of exorcising the ghosts of Rome and Wembley by besting Barcelona, but the man who would be entrusted with lifting the Champions League trophy should Ferguson's side make it to Munich in May is adamant that the Scot's side have learned enough in defeat to be confident of beating the Spaniards at the third time of asking.

"Yes (it has become an obsession), but we played a semi-final against them (in 2008) and won that, so that is something," said the United captain. "If you look at the two games in 2009 and 2011, the way they played, they were the better team in both, and they deserved to win in both.

"But this is a new year, with new challenges. Maybe we will play again this year and we will celebrate. We have played them in pre-season, beating them this summer, and twice in the Champions League in the last few years, and I think we have learned some things along the way."

The Serb, though, bristles at the suggestion that United have attempted to mimic the Catalans' style, inculcated in the club's players from a young age at their academy at La Masia.

Ferguson's introduction of Ashley Young, signed for £15million from Aston Villa, his promotion of home-grown talent like Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck ahead of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick, and his employment, in the early stages of the season, of a high-intensity, fluid, attacking-style drew comparisons with Guardiola's philosophy.

More significantly, it produced some scorelines which would not be unfamiliar to the denizens of the Nou Camp, most notably the spectacular 8-2 victory at home to Arsenal.

That approach appears to have been halted -- at least temporarily -- by the need to regain equilibrium following their humbling by the Premier League leaders, Manchester City, last month, but Vidic is adamant that it was never supposed to be a pallid impersonation of Barcelona's approach; instead, he says, Ferguson's side must plot their own path, forging their own style, if they are to overthrow Guardiola's team's dominance which occupies their thoughts more than any other.

"We have not changed the way we play to be more like Barcelona," he said. "They have their own way of playing and so do we. Yes, they have beaten us twice but the success we have had is not something you should underestimate.

"We have played in three finals in four years. We have our own way of playing and we are Manchester United. Yes, we can improve and we will have to if we want to beat the team who were champions of the world last year."

Rooney sat out training yesterday after picking up a knock in the 1-0 win at Swansea City on Saturday.

Jonny Evans has a tight hamstring but should also be available.


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