Rafael leads way through Manchester United's defensive crisis
Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to rest Rio Ferdinand for tonight's game with Braga means Manchester United may be forced to field Michael Carrick as a central defender or give Scott Wootton a full Champions League debut.
The 21-year-old, who joined United from the Liverpool academy, came on as a second-half substitute for Jonny Evans in the 2-1 win over Cluj. He played the full 90 minutes of the League Cup victory over Newcastle earlier in the month.
Ferguson said the central defensive crisis that has afflicted Manchester United for the first two months of the campaign may be about to ease. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, defenders who cost United £28m, have not played all season because of injury. Both, said Ferguson, are "two to three weeks away" from returning.
Smalling, who missed United's entire pre-season programme because of a broken metatarsal, has begun non-contact training while Jones, forced to return from a friendly in Scandinavia in July with back spasms, will resume football training on Monday.
United will, however, play Shinji Kagawa tonight, having rested him on Saturday because in Ferguson's words, "Stoke are the kind of team he would never have encountered before." He may find Braga's style more to his liking. So, too, may attack-minded Rafael, who has impressed Ferguson during United's defensive injury crisis.
"He is maturing and learning all the time," said the manager of his full-back. "Rafael has all the ingredients of a great player. He was quite impulsive and tended to overcommit himself. We have gone over it a few times but, bit by bit, it is coming together and he was easily our best player Saturday."
Rafael's growing maturity shines through in the manner in which he accepts Ferguson's criticism. While there are still issues to be resolved, he feels people are starting to assess him in a slightly different manner as he tries to establish himself for Brazil, too.
"I think they look at me differently now," Rafael said. "The way I play for United has changed a little bit and I have scored some goals as well. But mature is the word. I always want the ball. Now I read the game more and know what the opposing player is going to do."
The 22-year-old added: "It is a big time for me. The World Cup is the big competition for Brazil and all the fans expect us to win. I am really looking forward to being there."
Man Utd: LINDEGAARD, RAFAEL, CARRICK, EVANS, BUTTNER, VALENCIA, CLEVERLEY, ANDERSON, KAGAWA, ROONEY, VAN PERSIE
Braga: BETO, ELDERSON, VINICIUS, NUNO COELHO, SALINO, VIANA, MOSSORO, CUSTODIO, BARBOSA, EDER, ALAN
Kick-off 7.45pm, Old Trafford (ITV 1) Referee M Mazic (Serbia) Odds: Man Utd 1-3 Draw 17-4 Braga 8-1