Continuing Manchester United’s easy ride – UEFA Champions League Group H preview

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Group H seems to be making up the numbers. While groups like Chelsea’s have enough depth to guarantee a marquee match every round, Manchester United’s packet is too shallow to produce games that capture the imagination. Though the United brand assures the Red Devils will garner the attention (and airwaves) of UEFA’s broadcast partners, a MUFC-Braga match doesn’t exactly capture the magic of European soccer. Unfortunately, it’s the best this group has to offer.

The silver-ish lining to the weak group: Second place is still there for the taking. While CFR Cluj has an early edge, that will disappear if Galatasaray can win at home on Tuesday.

Manchester United (England) vs. Sporting Braga (Portugal)

Old Trafford, Manchester, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

After a turbulent weekend in Red Devil land that saw defiance, threats, and (ultimately) reconciliation, all seems to be back to normal at Manchester United. Another Champions League matchday has arrived, but since it’s merely the middle of another easy group stage, the Premier League isn’t far from United’s plans. Manager Alex Ferguson has already announced defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will be among those rested in anticipation of this weekend’s match with Chelsea.

Of course, with the type of depth at Manchester United’s disposal, the rotation of a few veterans shouldn’t hurt their chances at home against Braga. If United’s going to stubble, it’s going to be because of poor play, not because of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez lack talent. The Red Devils’ second XI could win this group.

Braga, however, should pose a bigger challenge than Galatasaray or Cluj, United’s first two group stage opponents. Though the Portuguese side stumbled in their Champions League opener, they’ve since awoken. They’re unbeaten in their last five games, including a 2-0 win in Istanbul. During that time, a previously dormant attack has found its stride, scoring 15 goals, with forward Éder claiming four.

That production’s unlikely to continue at Old Trafford, but if Braga can somehow claim a draw in England, they’ll take more points than they were expecting from the group favorites. For Manchester United, even if the worst happens on Tuesday, they’ll maintain a share of the group lead.

From Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson:

“I think the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now, that making yourself unpredictable can be a strength. When it comes to United, teams will now have to think: ‘Are they going to play with two out wide? Or with a midfield diamond?’ With players like Kagawa, Cleverley and Giggs, they can give us that flexibility.”

From Sporting Braga head coach José Peseiro:

” Of course, we don’t have the same resources as United, but I have complete faith in the players I’ve got. It doesn’t do the coach or players any good at all if you start thinking any other way.”

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Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. CFR Cluj (Romania)

Türk Telekom Arena, Istanbul, 2:45 pm. Eastern

Despite a four-match winless run that’s seen Gala concede eight times, head coach Fatih Terim remains relatively calm ahead of what many would see as a crucial match against Cluj. The Galatasaray coach insists Tuesday’s game will not decide his team’s destiny, even if a loss will leave them on no points through three rounds. While it may seem a long shot for the Turkish champions to lose at home to Cluj, after Gala dropped a 2-0 result to Braga on Oct. 2, nothing can be taken for granted.

For Cluj to prolong Gala’s struggles, they’ll have to reverse their own misfortune. Cluj’s three-match losing streak is their worst stretch since April 2005, with their last defeat coming at home despite being up a man for the last half hour. The downturn has Cluj sitting 10th in Romania’s 18-team Liga, already 13 points behind Steaua Bucharest.

If Cluj can defy their form and replicate their opening match win at Braga, they will take a huge step toward the knockout round. Although they’ll likely only sit three points ahead of Braga, the Romanians will have taken six points from trips to Portugal and Turkey. Merely holding serve at home against Braga and Galatasaray would then put Cluj into the next round.

From Galatasaray head coach Fatih Terim:

“We have our own playing philosophy and we never deviate from it. Maybe there will be some minor changes, but we never modify the core of the team.”

From Cluj head coach Ioan Andone:

“We see it as a two-game battle, and getting four points from these two games will be crucial.”

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More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H