Manchester United’s Champions League campaign started with a dud against Rangers, but tonight, United could seal a place in the round of 16 at Rangers’ expense as the two tangle at Ibrox Stadium.
Rangers’ held United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in September, but since then, United have reeled off three wins in a row to move into pole position Group C, scoring a 1-0 win over Valencia at the Mestalla and wins of 1-0 and 3-0 over Turkish champions Bursaspor.
Following their second-half onslaught in Bursa three weeks ago, United have reached the magic 10-point mark with two matches remaining, which has them three points ahead of Valencia, who are two points ahead of Rangers after their 3-1 win over the Scottish champions in the last round of matches.
While a draw would do the trick for United and leave them needing only a home draw against Valencia in two weeks’ time to wrap up top spot in the group, a draw could spell doom for Rangers. With Valencia hosting point-less and goal-less Bursaspor tonight, it’s very, very likely that Rangers need a win and nothing less to keep their knockout round hopes alive going into their trip to Turkey.
United go into Glasgow fresh off of a 2-0 win over Wigan on Saturday, with the three points moving them joint top of the Premier League with Chelsea on 28 points after 14 rounds.
Meanwhile, Rangers come into this clash after a thrilling 3-2 win at Kilmarnock on Saturday. Kenny Miller was the hero for Rangers as he notched a hat trick, including an 84th minute winner. With Celtic drawing at Dundee United, Rangers extended their lead at the top of the SPL table over their archrivals to three points, with 37 points from 14 matches.
Rangers may have lost the prolific Kris Boyd this summer, but Miller has filled his shoes more than adequately. Miller is well ahead the pack at the top of the SPL scoring charts with an astounding 18 goals – which matches his league output from all of last season. Miller has yet to score in the Champions League this season, but with the form that he’s been in, he’s certainly the danger man tonight.
One key player who won’t be taking part for Rangers tonight is attacker Kyle Lafferty. The Northern Ireland international broke a bone in his hand in a training ground accident this morning. As per Lafferty’s twitter, he’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by 19-year-old midfielder Kyle Hutton, who will be making his Champions League debut.
Lafferty is the latest of many injury concerns for Rangers this season, as they currently don’t have the services of defenders Madjid Bougherra, Sasa Papac, and Andy Webster, midfielder Maurice Edu, and strikers James Beattie and Nikica Jelavic.
Sir Alex Ferguson can certainly commiserate with his opposite number, Walter Smith, about injuries, as United have dealt with injury blow after injury blow this season. But United’s hopes for three points will be boosted by the presence of Wayne Rooney, who will receive a starting role tonight after a half-hour cameo against Wigan.
While Rooney’s return adds experience up front, at the back, it looks like Fergie will be turning to a couple of youngsters, as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are both being rested. That means we’ll likely see a pairing of Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans in the heart of United’s defense.
United have recorded four straight clean sheets to open their Champions League campaign, but that streak will no doubt be tested tonight. Smalling and Evans will need to be sharp from the start, as the expectation would seem to be for Rangers to push from the start knowing that a win is almost a necessity.
While an attacking approach from Rangers could cause a lot of problems for a United defense that has been shaky in far too many situations this season, it will also mean a much more open game than the first encounter, which plays right into United’s hands.
It’d be ideal for United to score early and put Rangers in even more of a desperate position, but it won’t be at the expense of falling behind and allowing Rangers to dictate the tempo.
Opportunistic, yet cautious looks to be the way to go here, and a draw would be satisfactory. However, I can see United taking advantage of Rangers’ need for a win and nicking another second-half winner to nab all three points.
Prediction: 2-1 United.
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