Things have been going pretty well for Manchester United thus far in Champions League play, to say the least.
No matter what happens on Wednesday, the Red Devils will come out of the first round on top of Group H. They have four wins and one loss thus far for 12 points, and the next closest teams to them are 2-1-2 with seven points apiece.
And one of those teams is their opponent on Wednesday. CFR Cluj sits in a tie with Galatasaray, and it has very much to gain and everything to lose from Wednesday's match. A win, though unlikely, would be huge; yet another loss would be heartbreaking.
Taking down Manchester United, though, will be no easy feat.
If Galatasaray loses to Braga and CFR Cluj manages a win on Wednesday, it could still move on to the Round of 16—but given the fact that many of Manchester United's stars figure to be resting, a win isn't totally out of the question. CFR Cluj almost got the job done a couple of months ago, and it could manage to surprise some people on Wednesday.
Where: Old Trafford, Greater Manchester, England
When: Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 2:45 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Soccer, ITV 1
Live Stream: FoxSoccer2go.com
Manchester United has already been coasting through the first round of play and has nothing to gain from Wednesday's match except the opportunity to play spoiler to its opponent.
CFR Cluj, alternately, has everything to gain from Wednesday's match.
The Railwaymen have put themselves in a situation where they need a win and a Galatasaray loss in order to move on after losing to Galatasaray 3-1 on Nov. 7 and playing to a 1-1 draw with them a couple of weeks earlier. CFR Cluj's wins came over Braga on Nov. 20 (3-1) and on Sept. 19 (2-0).
But most importantly for the implications of this matchup, CFR Cluj dropped a 2-1 match to Manchester United back on Oct. 2 and has no choice but to avenge that loss in order to move on. After taking an early 1-0 lead, CFR Cluj allowed two unanswered goals to suffer the loss and can't afford to let history repeat itself.
Already, this game is going to be physically exhausting for the Railwaymen, but given what happened the last time these two teams faced each other, it's going to be a test of mental strength as well.
CFR Cluj Player to Watch
The last time these two teams faced each other, it was Pantelis Kapetanos who put CFR Cluj ahead versus Manchester United. In fact, his first-half goal gave CFR Cluj some much-needed momentum against the Red Devils early on, and despite the fact that the Railwaymen couldn't hold on to the lead he seized, at least he knows he can get the job done.
And he'll have to once again on Wednesday if his side has any hope of moving on to the Round of 16. The forward has just one goal in five games on nine shots, but never has there been a better time to earn his second.
Manchester United Player to Watch
Alex Ferguson is going to be resting many of his key players against CFR Cluj, and on top of that, this squad is already dealing with a plethora of injuries. That doesn't leave much star power in the mix for Wednesday's match.
Given all of that, however, Ryan Giggs still could be a key component of the game. Despite his 39 years—which makes him the Champions League's oldest scorer, according to Goal.com—the midfielder still has the speed and the skills necessary to be an impact player on Wednesday. And given the rest of the factors projected to be in the starting lineup on Wednesday, he may need to be the impact player.
X-Factor: Mario Felgueiras
CFR Cluj's goalkeeper must play the game of his life on Wednesday if he hopes to keep his team alive in the Champions League, and the good news is, it should be much easier this time around than it was a couple of months ago.
Back then, he had to contend with Robin Van Persie, who victimized him twice in order to carry the Red Devils to victory. This time, with Van Persie and many of the other Manchester United stars on taking a rest, his objective should be at least a little bit easier to achieve.
Thus far in Champions League play, Felgueiras has started all five games and has made 25 saves with one shutout (of Braga on Sept. 19) and seven goals allowed. If he can put forth the kind of performance he had in September against Braga, CFR Cluj has more than a fighting chance.
What They're Saying
There was some good news for the Red Devils on Tuesday, quickly followed by disappointment: for at least a few minutes, it seemed as though they could see the return of Nemanja Vidic on Wednesday night against CFR Cluj, but shortly thereafter, the team confirmed that it was not so.
The defender, who has been out since September with a knee injury that required surgery, has been back in practice, and Wednesday's match could have presented the perfect opportunity for him to return to action. There would be no pressure, Manchester United is already assured of winning its group and it could have offered an opportunity for the club to assess his progress since suffering the injury.
Alas, it seems that what the club saw from Vidic in training wasn't enough. The team tweeted on Tuesday that the defender would be out of commission on Wednesday:
Breaking news: Sir Alex Ferguson confirms that Nemanja Vidic will not play against CFR Cluj tomorrow. #MUFC— It's All ManUtd™ (@iaManUtd) December 4, 2012
And that, at least, has to be a bit of good news for CFR Cluj, which needs all the help it can get in order to get past the Red Devils on Wednesday. This team has committed more fouls than anyone during Champions League play, according to Yahoo! Sports, and if it manages to advance to the Round of 16, it will do so for the first time ever, according to the Associated Press.
CFR Cluj midfielder Mario Camora isn't giving up hope, either. He believes that given what his side did the last time these two teams faced each other—when CFR Cluj took an early lead against thee Red Devils—his team has a fighting chance. And if nothing else, there's nothing wrong with a little optimism.
He told the AP:
You're allowed to dream before a match at the Theatre of Dreams [Old Trafford]. We will sacrifice, we will fight for every ball. It's a unique opportunity to play in such a stadium in front of one of the best teams in the world.
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