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Dec 4, 2006

Rafa favourite hoping to down United

If Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had got his way, Simao Sabrosa would have been a key member of his team by now.

Yet it is the red of Benfica and not the crimson of Liverpool that he is currently excelling and Manchester United may be regretting as much after Wednesday's crucial Champions League showdown at Old Trafford.

Benitez made no secret of his desire to land Sabrosa and appeared to have his man on a couple of occasions, yet the Anfield giants paid a heavy price for failing to seal the deal as this gifted performer was pivotal in Benfica ending their reign as European champions last season.

A few months on and Simao has another of England's north-west superpowers in his sights, with his oozing confidence acting as an ominous sign for United ahead of a game they dare not lose.

'Manchester United are playing so well and they start as favourites for this match, but we like to be in the position of underdog,' begins the bullish 27-year-old, who scored against United at Old Trafford last season.

'I don't have to look far to find some good omens. We met Manchester United in the final group game of last year's Champions League and beat them in Lisbon to knock them out. Why can't it happen again? We have to believe.

'What we are clinging to is the idea that football is never predictable. Manchester United dominated Celtic but still came away defeated. If the gods are with us and we play seriously, we can go through.'

With United needing just a draw to qualify from what has proved to be one of the more fascinating Champions League groups this season, there can be no doubting the scale of the task facing Benfica on Wednesday evening.

Yet Simao's pre-match approach appears to be focused on not upsetting the giant that lies in wait for his team, with his words of praise for Sir Alex Ferguson's resurgent team whole-hearted.

'As a spectator I love United's style of play, but as an opponent I'm less happy,' he says. 'Their first instinct is to attack and they go forward with a speed and precision which is hard to stop. We have to be very careful. We must not let them dictate the pace of the game.

'They are playing really well this season and have any number of match winners in Rooney, Saha, Giggs, Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo, who I obviously know very well. As a former Sporting Lisbon player, Ronaldo would love to knock us out of the Champions League. He's a special talent, so we'll have to watch him closely.'

We have to be very careful. We must not let them dictate the pace of the game.
Simao on United

When the final analysis is made on Thursday morning, the key game in this Champions League group may turn out to be Benfica's trip to Celtic, where they went down by the tightest of margins. The 3-0 defeat inflicted on Fernando Santos's side gave Scottish champions Celtic the impetus they have used to seal their own Champions League progress and it has put both United and Benfica, the two favourites to progress in this group, in real peril.

'This is our biggest game of the season and you cannot over-emphasise how important these 90 minutes will be to Benfica,' confirms Simao. 'We have to win at Old Trafford, nothing else will do. There can be no calculation, no holding back and it's a massive challenge we are all ready for.

'The fact that we have to pick up the three points may, in a strange way, work to our advantage. We know exactly what we have to do. Manchester United only have to avoid defeat to go on in the competition but that can be a dangerous position to be in.

'You can sometimes be unsure whether to go all out for the win or play conservatively for the draw, especially in an away game, but not this time. We have to show that Benfica can win away from home and there would be no better place to do it than Old Trafford.

'One thing is for sure - we won't freeze in Manchester. We have big game players who will be in their element in this game. We have proved that we can cope with the big games in the Champions League in the last couple of years and we like facing English teams.'

Benfica's league form in Portugal this season has mirrored their Champions League efforts, with results at their imposing Estadio da Luz immaculate and their away day exploits less so. However, they proved that they could turn on the style when required by recording that famous victory against Liverpool at Anfield back in March on a night when Simao fired an effort that will live with him for a long time.

'I scored one of the best goals of my career in the game against Liverpool,' he reflects. 'As soon as I hit it, I instinctively knew it was going in. I'd sign right now for another against United. Against Liverpool we proved we could live with the best. They were the reigning European Champions but were clearly the better team over the two legs.

'We were solid and attentive at the back, played with a lot of tactical discipline and always looked to make the most of our attacking opportunities. It was a performance without fear and we need the same again against United. I'd like to think that we have a team built for the big occasion, one which knows how to find that bit extra skill, application and heart when it's most needed.'

Another star showing from Simao at Old Trafford may re-ignite rumours that he will soon be plying his trade in the Premiership and while he admits to growing tired of constant transfer speculation surrounding his future, his admiration for the game in England is clear.

'I love playing in England,' he concludes. 'It's a country steeped in football and the atmosphere at their grounds is always sensational. The fans feel so close to the pitch and their passion is amazing.

'I would like to play there one day and I was flattered to be linked with Liverpool. The Premiership is an exciting league and their top clubs are all contenders in Europe, but I'm happy at Benfica and it is an honour to play for this club.'

Simao's contentment will move up a couple of notches if he is toasting the downfall of another English giant on Wednesday evening.


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