MANCHESTER - Manchester United
will become the first team to go through the Champions League
group stage without conceding a goal if they can keep a clean
sheet at home to free-scoring Valencia on Tuesday.
Their tight defence in European games has been in contrast
to erratic domestic performances at the back and has often been
down to promising displays by some of their younger players, who
look likely to be given the responsibility once again.
United and Valencia have already qualified for the knockout
round although top spot in Group C is still up for grabs. The
English club, who have 13 points from five games, will win the
group if they do not lose to the Spaniards, who are on 10.
With United facing important Premier League matches against
leaders Arsenal and champions Chelsea in the next fortnight,
manager Sir Alex Ferguson's policy of giving his youngsters a
run-around in Europe looks set to continue.
"We have some fantastic young players at the back,"
31-year-old Wes Brown, whose place in defence has sometimes been
taken by the new crop, told the club magazine Inside United.
"You could play a good back five with some of them in there;
Ben Amos in goal, Rafael at right-back, Jonny Evans and Chris
Smalling in the centre and Fabio at left-back. That is the next
While the gamble to experiment has paid off in the Champions
League, a youthful United side came crashing down to earth last
week when the holders lost 4-0 to West Ham United in the League
Cup to end a 29-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
Six clubs currently hold the record for the fewest number of
goals conceded in the Champions League group stage. Ajax
Amsterdam, Chelsea, Juventus (twice), Liverpool, AC Milan and
Villarreal share the honour with one goal.
United got some extra rest this week as Saturday's league
game at Blackpool was postponed because of a frozen pitch, while
Valencia's preparations have been less than ideal.
They are still smarting from Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Real
Madrid when a harsh second yellow card for midfielder David
Albelda left them with a man less for the last 25 minutes.
Up to then they had held Jose Mourinho's side, causing them
problems by crowding the midfield and breaking quickly. The
extra space worked in Cristiano Ronaldo's favour and the former
Manchester United forward scored twice in the closing stages.
They were, however, boosted by news goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez
had been included in the squad for the trip to northwest
England. The first-choice keeper has been sidelined since last
month with a calf injury but trained with the team on Sunday.
Valencia, fifth in La Liga, travel to watertight United with
one of the most potent strike forces, having scored 14 times in
their five Champions League matches.
Manchester United: 1-Edwin van der Sar; 21-Rafael, 12-Chris
Smalling, 15-Nemanja Vidic, 20-Fabio; 8-Anderson, 11-Ryan Giggs,
24-Darren Fletcher, 26-Gabriel Obertan, 14-Javier Hernandez,
Valencia: 1-Cesar Sanchez; 23-Miguel, 20-Ricardo Costa,
3-Hedwiges Maduro, 22-Jeremy Mathieu; 19-Pablo Hernandez,
24-Tino Costa, 6-David Albelda, 10-Juan Mata; 9-Roberto Soldado,
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