Manchester United hope to maintain a perfect record in this season’s UEFA Champions League with a victory over Galatasaray in Istanbul on Tuesday.
The Reds have already secured qualification to the competition’s knockout stages as Group H winners, having earned maximum points from four matches to date. As a result, Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a youthful squad to Turkey with well-publicised plans to rotate.
In contrast, Galatasaray are currently tied for second place with Romanian side CFR Cluj and have everything still to play for. Fortunately, for United at least, the Süper Lig leaders are on a dreadful run of form and have won only three of their last 10 fixtures in all competitions.
On Monday, a number of youthful Reds boarded a flight from Manchester to Istanbul with many first team players, including Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, left at home to rest. In fact, only six players who featured during last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Norwich City have travelled.
Ferguson has already stated that long-term absentee Phil Jones will return from injury and feature at some point, while Scott Wootton should deputise for one of the rested Rio Ferdinand or Chris Smalling. Nani (hamstring), Shinji Kagawa (knee) and Jonny Evans (groin) are also out.
With such an inexperienced team, United should face a stern test against a competitive Galatasaray team that came close to causing an upset at Old Trafford in September, when Michael Carrick’s early goal was all that separated the sides throughout an engaging, if not slightly frustrating, encounter.
The Reds must also be aware of the attacking threat posed by Turkish striker Burak Yilmaz, who has scored 11 of Galatasaray's 34 goals in all competitions this season—including four in this season’s Champions League and a hat-trick against Cluj last time out.
“It's the first time I have scored three goals in a European match,” Yilmaz told UEFA. “And while I don't know if it's the best game I have ever had – I have had many matches for the national team – it's a big achievement and a confidence-booster.”
Of course, 19 years on from a first visit to "hell," United are again braced for the lion’s den that is Galatasaray’s home ground. The Reds were once welcomed by a hostile and intimidating crowd at the Ali Sami Yeni and it remains to be seen if the new Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi will be as "hospitable."
Although the Reds are the only team to have won every group match in this season’s competition, a fifth consecutive victory looks unlikely under the circumstances, and many fans, including this writer, would perhaps already take a draw if it were offered ahead of kick-off.
Such a prediction is not inspired by negativity or pessimism, but simply realism. Sir Alex’s young guns have often shone in difficult situations, most recently at Stamford Bridge in the Capital One Cup, but asking them to gain victory in Istanbul in front of a partisan crowd might be too much.
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