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Manchester United Fixtures

Match Preview: Manchester United vs. Valencia

After a disappointing start to their Champions League campaign, Manchester United went to Valencia and scored a rare win in Spain to get back on track. If United can pull off the sweep tonight at Old Trafford, they’ll round out another successful Champions League group stage run by clinching top spot – and perhaps more along with it.

With a 1-0 win over Rangers in Glasgow two weeks ago, United made up for September’s home draw against the Scottish champions and recorded a fourth straight Champions League win. The victory put United on 13 points and secured a place in the round of 16 for the fifth straight season.

However, Valencia kept alive their hopes of claiming top spot by routing hapless Bursaspor 6-1, and if they can come into Old Trafford and snatch all three points, they’ll also snatch top spot as well.

Clinching top spot would be ideal for United, as it would eliminate the possibility of having to face Barcelona or Real Madrid in the round of 16, though AC Milan (assured of finishing runners-up in Group G) appear to be a better side than the one United faced in the round of 16 last season, and there is the chance that Inter could be in the mix, if they are unable to edge out Tottenham for top spot in Group A.

Often enough, the last match of the group stage would provide the opportunity to give some of the more inexperienced or lesser-used players a European run-out. However, with top spot needing to be secured and with United’s weekend fixture against Blackpool having been postponed, we’ll be seeing most of the big guns tonight.

That includes Wayne Rooney, whose late penalty at Ibrox Stadium earned United a deserved 1-0 win on November 24. He’ll be partnered up front by Dimitar Berbatov, and if you recall, the last time Berbatov was on the pitch, he had the performance of a lifetime with his sensational five-goal haul in the 7-1 drubbing of Blackburn.

It doesn’t look like United will have any major injury absences tonight, save for the long-term one of Antonio Valencia. Wes Brown and the currently out-of-form Jonny Evans are unlikely to take part tonight, and neither will Owen Hargreaves, who as per yesterday’s news roundup is rehabbing in Munich, nor Michael Owen, who hasn’t been deemed ready to make a return from a hamstring injury. But Patrice Evra (groin) should slot into his usual starting role at at left back, while Paul Scholes, who’s also dealing a groin ailment, will be in the mix to start in the heart of United’s midfield.

With Owen still out, you’d have to expect there to be a place on the bench for Javier Hernandez. When these two sides met at the Mestalla in late September, Chicharito’s 85th minute strike gave United the 1-0 win at Valencia that reignited their hopes of topping the group. In that tie, there had been little to take notice of until the Mexico international was introduced late on, but when he was introduced, United sparked to life, and in the end, took three much-needed points.

Meanwhile, Valencia will be without four players who took part in the meeting at the Mestalla in the first meeting. Jeremy Mathieu and David Navarro, both of whom started, and Manuel Fernandes and Mehmet Topal, who made substitute appearances, are all out. In goal, former Tottenham keeper Cesar has been dealing with a hamstring injury and backup Miguel Angel Moya is out with a thigh muscle tear, which could see Vicente Guaita Panadero, who’s started Valencia’s last two La Liga matches, earn his first Champions League start. One potential boost for Valencia is that right back Miguel could start tonight after making a half-hour cameo in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Real Madrid after being out with a thigh problem.

The defeat at the Bernabeu dropped Valencia 13 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona, with Los Che on 24 points after 14 rounds, with seven wins, three draws, and four defeats, with three of those four defeats coming away from home.

Not only will United clinch top spot if they can secure at least a draw tonight, but with another clean sheet, they would become the first side ever to go through the group stage of the Champions League without conceding a single goal. Their run of Champions League clean sheets will certainly be tested though, with Valencia knowing they need a win and no less to win the group.

However, United have a big stake in this one as well, and with Sir Alex sending out a well-rested and full-strength lineup tonight, I look for the home side to do more than pick up the draw that’s needed to win the group.

Prediction: 2-0 United