Manchester powers take European stage

Europe’s biggest tournament rolls on Wednesday with a set of key Champions League games. Both Manchester teams are in action on a day that also sees Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Lyon and Real Madrid step up to the plate.

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The big games feature the Manchester powerhouses. To put it into American terms, we’re looking at two quality division-rivalry games; think Eagles-Redskins or Bears-Packers, and expect two physical clashes that will turn heavily on each team’s offensive capabilities.

United, the reigning Barclays Premier League champs, travel to Portugal to face Benfica, while loaded new boys City will host a solid side, Italy’s Napoli. City, in a group that is arguably the toughest in the competition with Villarreal and Bayern Munich, need to set the tone at Eastlands for their inaugural campaign. United, who are expected not only to win their group handily but to contend for the title, are looking to show their traditional grit and character on the road against a Portuguese side that manager Sir Alex Ferguson admits will be a handful.

Both Manchester clubs are a perfect 4-0 in league play, and United only edge City atop the table by virtue of goal difference. Both teams have blown through some pretty good teams, with United setting a record pace by slamming 18 goals past the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Bolton. City haven’t been quite as dominant but look just as convincing, downing Bolton, Tottenham, Swansea and Wigan in quick succession. In fact, City’s lone loss so far came at the hands of United, who pipped them 3-2 thanks to a late goal from Nani in the traditional friendly curtain raiser, the Community Shield.

City have spent their way into the big leagues in short order. Even with some well-reported drama surrounding last year’s MVP Carlos Tevez, they look to have not missed a beat as they prepare to take their bow in Europe’s top club competition. Sergio “Kun” Aguero already has recorded two hat-tricks this season, emerging as the league’s deadliest striker. He’s been aided by the silky passing and vision of David Silva and Arsenal wantaway Samir Nasri and complemented by the rebirth of Edin Dzeko as a potent attacker.

If City have a weakness, it is a tendency to switch off on defense. Despite having an enviable backline that includes Vincent Kompany, Gael Clichy and Micah Richards, with support in front of them from hard man Yaya Toure, City sometimes slip into a fugue state and allow attackers to get clean looks at keeper Joe Hart.

That might be dangerous against a Napoli side that has a legit gamer in Edinson Cavani, who found the net 33 times last year. Napoli also have added Goran Pandev from Inter Milan with the hope the two can become an effective tandem. Marek Hamsik is lethal — as anyone who watched his Slovakia knows — but also has a tendency to disappear in the biggest games.

City have some doubts for the game. Midfielders Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and James Milner are all out injured, while volatile striker Mario Balotelli is suspended. Napoli is at full strength. This isn’t a pick ‘em, however; City are expected to win.

United may be masquerading as a youth squad, what with the additions of Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Phil Jones and the constant presence of the Da Silva twins, Chicharito and Jonny Evans. Don’t be fooled: This is a tough, deep squad that you do not want to face. Even though United will be missing first-choice center backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, few expect them to suffer. United didn’t concede a single away goal in the Champions League last year, and even though new goalkeeper David De Gea looks unsure at times, don’t expect them to start coughing any up now.

The reasons are plain: United hold the ball better than almost any team and have the ability to camp out in the attacking third for large segments of the game. With Wayne Rooney back to his full, glorious, bulldog form, he and Chicharito have lit up their opponents, and (not incidentally) kept last year’s top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, pinned to the bench. Young’s and Nani’s forays out wide have so far proved impossible to handle, and Jones doesn’t look 19 in the slightest, cleaning up messes in the back.

The only hitch so far is that Cleverley will miss the next month after he was injured in Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Bolton. United won’t miss a trick and are likely to give Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs a run out in the center to add some experience to their lineup.

Benfica’s problem is that they are not Porto. Benfica sit second in Portugal despite having a pretty good squad merely because Porto have been perfect. They have tried to address that this season by picking up a cultured band of castoffs that include former Barcelona man Nolito and Real Madrid extra Ezequiel Garay. Young midfielder Bruno Cesar came in from Corinthians after an impressive spell along with rising Belgian star Axel Witsel.

Benfica are clearly better than they were the last time United met them in successive European campaigns between 2005-07, but the result is likely to be the same: A scrappy encounter broken open by United’s ability to grind down opponents, get wide and then strike right down the heart. This isn’t a pick ‘em at Estadio da Luz: United are expected to come out with a road win.