Manchester United go into Wednesday's second leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal fully aware of the size and importance of the task that confronts them.
With the tie standing at 2-2, but Porto holding two away goals and the advantage of a vociferous home crowd, Manchester United must rediscover their winning ways if their dream of the quintuple is to stay alive. But in doing so, they will have to become the first English side to come away from Estadio do Dragão with a win.
It's now been more than a month since the last convincing win for the Red Devils, after losing in the English Premier League to both Liverpool and Fulham, managing only a draw against Porto in the first leg and scraping wins against both Aston Villa and Sunderland, thanks to their new "super sub" Federico Macheda. United have looked toothless going forwards and clueless at the back as well. They must address both of these if they are to retain the trophy.
The key to this game will be the centre-back pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Against Liverpool, Vidic had the worst game of his United career, his sending off late in the match left him suspended for the game against Fulham. Now, for the last three games, Ferdinand has been absent with a back injury and the defence looks shaky at best.
Throughout this period United have looked like a shadow of the side that was running away with the league only not so long ago.
United's success this season has been based on a solid defensive effort. Edwin van der Sar, at 38, is having one of the best seasons of his career, and it is in no small part thanks to the play of his centre-backs. If Ferdinand returns on Wednesday to partner Vidic against the likes of Hulk and Rodriguez, United can build on the firm foundations they provide and should come out on top. Without this partnership, it will be a big task, even for a side like Manchester United.
With Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Cristiano Ronaldo and van der Sar all playing little or no part in Saturday's game, and the rest of the squad having more than twice as much recovery time as prior to the first leg, United's should be a far fresher side than the team which struggled in the previous home leg.
Sir Alex Ferguson can choose from Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, and Ronaldo up front, an attack matched only by that of Barcelona and bound to be trouble for Porto's defence.
It is imperative that United play to win the match from the start. Attempting to keep Porto out and hoping to sneak a goal is not a style that suits either the team or the players. They must take the game to Porto, a side whose strength is in attack rather than defence, and who will not be able to play the expansive attacking football that they would normally prefer.
If Ferdinand does return on Wednesday, United should take the game and advance to the semifinal. My prediction would be 2-0 in favor of Manchester United. If, however, United have to start with Vidic and Evans, they may struggle and could easily see their quintuple hopes dashed.
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