Benfica star Gaitan has the technique to dazzle the Premier League

By Andy BrassellEuropean football expert
Nicolas Gaitan
Gaitan has been capped six times for Argentina

Benfica's trip to Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday will prompt considerable nostalgia - but the spotlight will be on one of the Portuguese club's bright young stars.

United beat Benfica 4-1 in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley, with Sir Bobby Charlton scoring twice against the Lisbon club who had twice lifted the cup themselves in the early part of that decade.

Then, they boasted the likes of Eusebio - this time all eyes will be on Nicolas Gaitan.

The 23-year-old Argentine is Benfica's most-prized asset. He is a player who fits perfectly into the club's tradition of flair and is fast becoming one of Europe's most-gifted midfielders.

Last month Benfica gave the midfielder a new five-year contract with a bumper release clause of £38.5m.

As well as acting as a warning to the likes of United, Inter Milan and Paris St Germain, the contract was recognition of the huge strides Gaitan has made in 2011.

Benfica signed Gaitan from Boca Juniors for £7.2m in the summer of 2010. He was initially viewed as a replacement for Real Madrid-bound Angel Di Maria, which led to some early confusion as to how he would be best used.

Having tended to play a central role for Boca, Gaitan was initially shoehorned into the left-wing position where his countryman had so flourished for Jorge Jesus's side.

Then, just as he began to settle at the Estadio da Luz and hit a vein of form, he was sent off in a crucial Champions League tie at Lyon last October.

But he eventually scored nine times in the season, providing as many assists in all competitions, and was named the revelation of 2010/11 in the Portuguese Liga's end-of-season awards.

Despite that initial success, his development has accelerated this season thanks to a tactical switch that has given Gaitan the platform to display his talents.

Now playing in a five-man midfield instead of 4-4-2, Gaitan has been given licence to drift right, into the centre or even behind the lone forward, and the extraordinary range of his passing is coming to the fore.

He was highly impressive in the 1-1 Champions League group draw against United at the Luz, when his stunning cross-field ball created the opener for Oscar Cardozo.

In fact, Gaitan has stepped up every time it mattered this season.

He scored the first equaliser in the 2-2 draw away at arch-rivals Porto, while his beautiful left-foot curler sealed victory against Trabzonspor in the Champions League third qualifying round.

Despite his progress, there seems as yet little prospect of a starting place in the Argentina starting XI, but that is no slight on his quality.

Gaitan had Paris Saint-Germain's £36m superstar Javier Pastore for company on the bench in recent 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Bolivia and Columbia, illustrating the wealth of midfielders Argentina have at their disposal.

Just as the wiry Pastore has adapted in the physical French league, there is no reason to assume the slight figure of Gaitan would be bullied out of his stride in the Premier League.

The considerable recent impact of smaller midfield craftsmen such as Luka Modric and David Silva has shown that technique can win the day in England - and Gaitan has that in abundance.

"Benfica treat me very well and I feel very comfortable here," he said on signing his new deal in October. "I hope, and expect, to see out my contract here."

If he continues on his current trajectory, it may well be out of his hands.

Gaitan now has the chance to show he has what it takes to thrill Old Trafford.

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