MANCHESTER UNITED vs BRAGA
Having quickly gelled as a strike partnership, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie will look to supply Manchester United’s goals against Braga on Tuesday to put their team on the brink of qualification for the Champions League knockout stage.
United has scored nine goals in the three games Rooney and Van Persie have started together, the most recent being a 4-2 victory over Stoke in the Premier League on Saturday when both players were on target.
With manager Alex Ferguson taking no chances this year after seeing his team surprisingly eliminated in the group stage last season, he should have no hesitation to keep his star strikers together for the visit of the Portuguese club to Old Trafford.
United won its first two Group H games and two more victories from the upcoming double-header against Braga will see the team advance with two matches to spare, leaving it to concentrate on the domestic campaign in England.
Braga and Romanian minnow Cluj, which visits Galatasaray in the other group game, both have three points and the likely battle to finish second behind United could go down to the very last round. Galatasaray has lost both its games so far.
Braga is way off the form that secured the team third place in the Portuguese league last season. It needed two hours last weekend to beat second-division club Leixoes in a Portuguese Cup game, eventually winning 3-0 after extra time.
Eder, one of the scorers in that match, has scored four goals in six Portuguese league games this season and is the man most likely to threaten a United defense that has appeared wobbly at times this campaign, especially at home.
“We’re giving ourselves uphill fights,” Ferguson said. “There’s no doubt our attacking play has been the strongest part of our game. But we’re letting in goals at home and that’s disappointing.”
Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, two of the team’s most experienced defenders, will be rested for the game ahead of Sunday’s Premier League match against Chelsea.
Midfielders Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs, who all sat out Saturday’s win over Stoke that kept United in second place in the Premier League, are likely to return.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK vs CHELSEA
Snubbed by Spain for recent internationals, Juan Mata has reacted by producing arguably the best form of his career for Chelasea, and Shakhtar Donetsk is up next for the playmaker in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Mata has scored six goals and made a string of assists in his last five games for Chelsea, showing he is fully refreshed after being rested at the start of the season following appearances at the European Championship and Olympics.
He’s still being overlooked by world champion Spain but Shakhtar will know Mata is the danger man in the Group E match at the Donbass Arena.
“I just try to improve with every Chelsea game I play,” Mata said after scoring twice in Chelsea’s 4-2 win over Tottenham on Saturday, maintaining his team’s four-point lead in the Premier League. “I just want to do my best for my team and, at this moment, I am feeling really well.”
Both teams have four points — two ahead of Juventus, which will be expecting consecutive wins from its upcoming matches against Danish club FC Nordsjaelland.
Juventus’ 2-2 draw with Chelsea on matchday one should leave the group well poised through to the final round of games, with little to split the top three.
Chelsea is expected to recall captain John Terry to its defense after the center back was suspended for the victory at Tottenham while he serves a four-match domestic ban for racially abusing an opponent in a Premier League game. Neither Chelsea nor Shakhtar have any new injury problems.
There are doubts over the fitness of Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who sat out both Italy’s win over Denmark last week and the victory over Napoli.
BARCELONA vs CELTIC
With Lionel Messi running rampant in attack, Barcelona must tighten its leaky defense against Celtic knowing a win on Tuesday will give it total control of Group G in the Champions League.
Messi scored his club record 21st career hat trick in Barcelona’s wild 5-4 victory at Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, which kept it at the top of the Spanish league alongside Atletico Madrid.
But it’s been a decade since the Catalan team last conceded 11 league goals through the first eight rounds, and Celtic will look to exploit the vulnerability at the Camp Nou after coming off a win at Spartak Moscow.
Barcelona is hopeful center back Gerard Pique will return from a foot injury with Carles Puyol sidelined and makeshift pair Alex Song and Javier Mascherano unconvincing in a league victory that maintained Barcelona’s unbeaten start to the season.
Messi‘s 15 goals — including a league-high 11 — are the main reason Barcelona is unbeaten through 10 games this season.
“Statistics are just a detail, the important thing is that we keep on winning,” Messi said after his 59th goal of the calendar year.
The Argentina forward has already scored 71 goals for club and country in 2012 to leave himself only four shy of matching Pele’s record of 75 in a single year in 1959.
“I don’t know how you can stop him,” said Celtic assistant coach Johan Mjallby, who watched Messi’s performance against Deportivo. “He doesn’t really play as a recognized striker. We know we can’t switch off for a second. We know they are brilliant going forward.”
Messi’s goals have been aided by Cesc Fabregas, who stepped in to Xavi Hernandez’s usual playmaking role with ease in guiding the attack at Deportivo. The former Arsenal captain has turned into a versatile player for coach Tito Vilanova, who has used him in various positions throughout one of the best starts by any Barcelona coach to a season.
Celtic is coming off its first Champions League away win in 21 matches but Barcelona is unbeaten at home in 17 in the competition. Celtic is winless in 12 trips to Spain although, the Scottish team has managed two draws at the Camp Nou in three visits.
LILLE vs BAYERN MUNICH
Winger Franck Ribery will look to punish the club where he was formed as a youth player when Bayern Munich travels to struggling Lille on Tuesday.
Ribery, who was on Lille’s books from 1995-99 before being released, has been in fine form recently, creating three goals in Bayern’s 5-0 win away to Fortuna Duesseldorf on Saturday, and setting up Olivier Giroud’s equalizer for France against Spain last week.
“I know my family and a lot of friends will be there,” said Ribery, who grew up close to Lille in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Saturday’s win made Bayern the first side to start a Bundesliga campaign with eight wins, but the Champions League runner-up is under pressure in Europe after its surprise 3-1 loss away to Bate Borisov three weeks ago.
“We were surprised to lose to BATE Borisov. Because of that we’ve got a bit of pressure on our shoulders in the Champions League. So we have a clear objective: win the match in France and the return match in Munich. That will put us on the way to qualifying.”
The Belarus side has six points and will take a major step toward qualifying from Group F if it beats Valencia at home.
Bayern’s loss in Belarus was Bayern’s only blip in a remarkable season where it has won 11 out of 12 matches in all competitions.
Lille, by contrast, has won only three out 13 in all competitions and is languishing down in 11th spot in the French league. It has lost both matches in the Champions League so far and faces another first-round exit, just like last season.
Bayern is without Dutch winger Arjen Robben, who has been laboring for almost a month with muscle problems. Striker Mario Gomez and center back Daniel van Buyten are also out injured.
But even the absence of Robben and the prolific Gomez will hardly weaken a Bayern side full of attacking menace.