If Manchester United FC have been winning games without being at their fluent best this season, Simon Hart wonders what will happen when they actually hit top form.
"Nothing is easy for the Reds these days." At 99.9% of football clubs, a six-match winning streak would be a cause for celebration but this line, in the Manchester Evening News' report on their 2-1 win against Newcastle United FC in the English League Cup on Wednesday night, underlines that Manchester United FC are no ordinary club. Winning alone is not enough, it seems, for a club who have become what the Americans would call the "winningest" in English football under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Five of United's six victories have been narrow ones. There was the feeling among reporters in the mixed zone after last week's opening Group H success over Galatasaray AŞ, that their performance had echoes of last season's disappointing European efforts, lacking the swagger and authority so often seen from Sir Alex's teams in the past.
Four days later, the manager himself had to concede that his side were "poor" in their 2-1 win at rivals Liverpool FC, who, even with ten men, were extremely unfortunate to lose to Robin van Persie's late penalty.
One oft-heard argument is that United lack the driving presence in midfield of a player like Roy Keane, the man whose performance in the 1999 UEFA Champions League semi-final triumph at Juventus – despite knowing a booking had just cost him a final appearance – was described by his manager as "the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field".
Replacing somebody like Keane is not easy and ditto Paul Scholes – so irreplaceable, in fact, that he came out of retirement in January to resume his United career.
Darren Fletcher has made a welcome return for United
Yet looking at United's midfield, there were positive signs against Newcastle with the promising Tom Cleverley scoring his first United goal and Darren Fletcher starting (and completing) his first match since taking a break from football last November because of a career-threatening illness.
That was good news for Sir Alex, and Wayne Rooney's return from injury was another boost for the Scot. The United manager asserted in Wednesday night's programme notes that with Rooney, Van Persie, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck, he now has an attacking quartet "as good as, if not better, than anything in the country".
Yes, United may not be at their best yet and the loss of Nemanja Vidić for two months is a worry they could do without, but these are problems 99.9% of managers would love to have. If United can win matches at a moment when "nothing is easy", their rivals should fear the prospect of them really finding their stride.
SL Benfica have not won at home to Spanish opposition since 1982 and changing that statistic against Group G rivals FC Barcelona may prove easier said than done.
SL Benfica will seek a first victory against Spanish opposition in 30 years when they host Group G rivals FC Barcelona, who have a superb recent away UEFA Champions League record. The Spanish side had to work hard for a 3-2 home win against FC Spartak Moskva on matchday one, when Benfica drew 0-0 at Celtic FC.
Past meetings • Whenever these two clubs have met the winners have gone on to lift the European Cup, starting with Bela Guttmann's Benfica in the 1961 final in Berne. Although Sándor Kocsis (21) put the Blaugrana ahead, Benfica hit back through José Águas (31), an Antoni Ramallets own goal (32) and Mário Coluna (55) proving enough despite Zoltán Czibor's strike (75).
• Barcelona secured their place in the 1992 final with a 2-1 win against Sven-Göran Eriksson's Benfica in the concluding round of matches in the fledgling group stage on 14 April 1992. Hristo Stoichkov (12) and José María Bakero (23) scored for Johan Cruyff's side with Brito (27) replying. The clubs had drawn 0-0 in Lisbon on 11 December 1991. Benfica finished third in the group while Barcelona went on to win their first European Cup at UC Sampdoria's expense.
• Barcelona's second European Cup triumph followed a quarter-final defeat of a Benfica side coached by Ronald Koeman in 2005/06. Again the sides drew 0-0 in Lisbon before Ronaldinho (19) and Samuel Eto'o (89) earned Frank Rijkaard's men a semi-final berth.
• The teams for that Lisbon encounter on 28 March 2006 were: Benfica: Moretto, Ricardo Rocha, Luisão, Anderson, Léo, Beto, Manuel Fernandes, Petit, Simão, Geovanni (Karagounis 68), Robert (Miccoli 46). Barcelona: Valdés, Belletti, Motta, Oleguer, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, Deco (Gabri 76), Iniesta, Larsson (Giuly 76), Eto'o, Ronaldinho.
• Carles Puyol, suspended for the Lisbon meeting, played in the second leg.
Match background • Benfica have won none of their last 12 encounters with Spanish clubs, including home and away losses to Getafe CF when they last faced Liga opposition in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup round of 16. Not since the 1982/83 UEFA Cup first round have Benfica beaten a Spanish team. The club's assistant coach Minervino Pietra was in the side that recorded 2-1 home and away wins against Real Betis Balompié.
• During the four-year reign of Tito Vilanova's predecessor, Josep Guardiola, Barcelona lost three of 24 UEFA Champions League away fixtures, winning 11 and drawing ten.
• On Barcelona's last trip to Lisbon Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi were among the scorers in a 5-2 victory at Sporting Clube de Portugal in the 2008/09 group stage. Their record in Portugal is W3 D3 L4, with their last defeat coming at CF Os Belenenses in the 1987/88 UEFA Cup first round. They still progressed 2-1 on aggregate.
• Barcelona's latest meeting with Portuguese opposition brought a 2-0 victory over FC Porto in the 2011 UEFA Super Cup, Messi (39) and Cesc Fàbregas (88) scoring.
• Victorious against Barcelona in the 1961 European Cup final, Benfica retained the trophy in 1962 with a 5-3 final triumph over Real Madrid CF.
Team ties • Nolito made 73 league appearances for Barcelona's B team but only featured twice in the Liga for the senior side.
• Ezequiel Garay had spells with Real Racing Club and Real Madrid, playing in the Merengues' 2011 Copa del Rey final triumph over Barcelona.
• Rodrigo is a product of Madrid's youth academy and made 18 appearances for Real Madrid Castilla.
• Pablo Aimar spent eight seasons in Spain, six with Valencia CF, where he played with David Villa, and two with Real Zaragoza. He scored 32 goals in 215 Liga appearances – two in 11 against Barcelona.
• Eduardo Salvio lost twice against Barcelona with Club Atlético de Madrid last term, including a 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou.
• Former RC Recreativo de Huelva and Granada CF player Carlos Martins scored in Portugal's 4-0 friendly win against Spain in November 2011.
• Óscar Cardozo missed a penalty when Paraguay lost to Spain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals, succumbing to a late Villa goal.
FC Bayern München meet a team from Belarus for the first time in the UEFA Champions League and FC BATE Borisov can be encouraged by the German side's recent away results.
FC BATE Borisov and FC Bayern München meet for the first time in a competitive fixture with each side having begun Group F in positive fashion.
• While Bayern's 2-1 home defeat of Valencia CF raised few eyebrows, BATE caught the eye with a 3-1 victory at LOSC Lille, their first win in the UEFA Champions League group stage at the 13th attempt.
Match background • This is the first time the German giants have faced opponents from Belarus, while BATE faced Bayern's city rivals TSV 1860 München in the 2002 UEFA Intertoto Cup second round. BATE won 1-0 away – Artem Kontsevoi scoring in the 74th minute having missed a penalty in the first half – and 4-0 at home.
• BATE won a sixth straight Belarusian title in 2011 to earn themselves a chance of claiming a UEFA Champions League group stage place for a third time. They overcame FK Vardar 2-1 at home and on aggregate in the second qualifying round, and in the next stage needed an own goal for a 1-1 draw with Debreceni VSC in Belarus before a 2-0 away success.
• A 2-0 home win against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC put BATE in control of their play-off tie, a 1-1 draw in Israel taking Viktor Goncharenko's side through 3-1 on aggregate.
• Remaining unbeaten at home in qualifying maintained a trend for BATE who had done the same in the preliminaries for the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League, recording two wins and a draw, and again in 2008/09 when they had a win and two draws.
• From the group stage of those two campaigns and their UEFA Europa League participations in both 2010/11 and 2009/10, BATE's home record is W3 D2 L7.
• At home in last season's group stage BATE lost 5-0 against FC Barcelona and 1-0 against FC Viktoria Plzeň. They drew their other home game 1-1 against AC Milan and finished fourth in Group H.
• Bayern are hoping to go one step further than last season when they reached the final at their own Fußball Arena München, only to lose on penalties to Chelsea FC. Away from home in the group stage they beat Villarreal CF 2-0, drew 1-1 at SSC Napoli and lost 2-0 at Manchester City FC. On their travels in the knockout rounds they lost 1-0 at FC Basel 1893, beat 2-0 Olympique de Marseille and lost 2-1 at Real Madrid CF.
• Bayern, European champions on four occasions, have lost three of their last four UEFA Champions League away games, winning one of their last five.
Team ties • Aleksandr Hleb faced Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger when Belarus and Germany played out a 2-2 friendly draw in Kaiserslautern on 27 May 2008. In the 73rd minute Belarus introduced Aleksandr Pavlov who provided the assist for Vitali Bulyga's equaliser two minutes from time.
• Hleb had two separate spells with VfB Stuttgart, from 2000 to 2005, and then from 2009 until 2010 and in each case he was a team-mate of Mario Gomez. He also played with Lahm, who had a two-year loan spell with Stuttgart from September 2003. Hleb played alongside Mario Mandžukić at VfL Wolfsburg in 2010/11.
• Mandžukić came up against Aleksandr Yurevich, Hleb, Vitali Rodionov and Maksim Bordachev when Croatia faced Belarus in 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying. Mandžukić's Croatia triumphed 3-1 away and then 1-0 at home.
• Rodionov played for SC Freiburg in Germany's second division between January and June 2009.
• Anatoliy Tymoshchuk came up against Yegor Filipenko, Hleb, Pavlov and Yurevich when Ukraine met Belarus in the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. Ukraine won 1-0 at home with the game in Minsk ending goalless.
• Franck Ribéry's France drew 1-1 against Bordachev's Belarus in a UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier in Minsk on 3 June 2011. Ribéry scored in Les Bleus' 3-1 victory against a Belarus side featuring Bordachev, Rodionov, Artem Radkov, Renan Bressan and Denis Polyakov in a FIFA World Cup qualifier on 11 September 2012 in Paris, Aleksandr Gutor an unused substitute.
Improved transport and a dearth of eastern promise have made travelling around Russia easier for intrepid reporter Richard van Poortvliet – at the expense of his sense of adventure.
You only get a feeling of how big Russia is once you are here. A 'local' derby between teams may still involve a 200km journey for away fans and when FC Luch-Energia Vladivostok were in the Premier-Liga it took a flight of eight and a half hours to reach there from Moscow. Or seven days on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Zenit fans are becoming a familiar sight in the UEFA Champions League
From a selfish perspective, it certainly helps that Russia's representatives in this season's UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League all play their home games in the western cities of Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan. A four-hour train journey between my base in the capital and Russia's second city, St Petersburg, makes a nice change but there is still potential for drama – past experiences attest to that.
Two years ago I was assigned to cover FC Rubin Kazan's UEFA Champions League home meeting with FC Barcelona and, unusually, I travelled the day before the match rather than on the day of the game itself – it is a good job I did. My flight was delayed due to fog in Kazan and though we eventually took off in hope, the mists had not lifted when we arrived. The plane, running low on fuel, was forced to land in Kirov, still 300km from my destination.
The only option was to complete the journey by taxi, a six-hour journey that gracefully only came to €150. I arrived at my hotel a stone's throw away from the Centralniy Stadion at 03.00 refreshed by an incredibly interesting experience I will never forget. That evening Rubin provided one for their supporters, earning a 1-1 draw with Barça to add to their 2-1 triumph at the Camp Nou 12 months earlier.
Such situations are a rarity, as transportation links improve ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I have mixed emotions. Touring can be a bit of a nightmare at times, but the pluses significantly outweigh the minuses. Travelling around the country and meeting fans and club officials has been wonderful and the vast majority are extremely warm in both their hospitality and generosity. I will miss it.
Speaking to Champions Matchday, the official UEFA Champions League magazine, new AFC Ajax captain Siem de Jong says all the pressure is on their Group D opponents.
As the UEFA Champions League draw was made, new AFC Ajax captain Siem de Jong and his team-mates could only laugh as they were drawn with Real Madrid CF, Manchester City FC and the side that beat them 1-0 in their opener, Borussia Dortmund. This is not to say Ajax do not fancy their chances. De Jong, 23, is convinced the four-time European Cup winners' possession football can be effective against the champions of England, Spain and Germany.
How does it feel to be Ajax captain?
Siem de Jong: It is a great honour. This is my sixth season here; I've seen many players come and go. Jan [Vertonghen] has left, Theo Janssen is gone and I was next in line. I won't suddenly change now I'm captain. I'll just help the team as much as I can. I'd do the same without the armband.
What is a realistic objective for Ajax?
De Jong: We hope to go as far as possible, but it would be very nice to finish third [in Group D]. We'll certainly play to win. We have nothing to lose, so we can play with freedom.
Does the UEFA Champions League pose particular challenges for players?
De Jong: Mistakes can be fatal. We have a young group of players, and we have to try to play our own football. If we play our own possession game, we can make it difficult for our opponents.
Which midfielder are you particularly looking forward to doing battle with?
De Jong: We've played against Real Madrid in the last two seasons and haven't beaten them once. So it would be nice to play against someone like Xabi Alonso, and to go on and win that game.
What did you learn from those matches?
De Jong: We have to be careful we don't find ourselves thinking it's all going well and suddenly the ball's in the net at our end. We have to stay sharp, because every mistake leads to an immediate counterattack.
Ajax have a glorious history in Europe. Is that an inspiration or a burden?
De Jong: It's a motivation to succeed. People always expect a lot from Ajax and we will do our best to fulfil those expectations.
To learn De Jong's views on his position, weaknesses and idols read the rest of the interview in Champions Matchday magazine, available now on newsstands across Europe and in a digital version. You can follow the magazine on Twitter@ChampionsMag.