Evergreen Giggs rolls back years
Veteran’s stunning strike earns point for United
Man Utd 1
Published 15/09/2011 | 05:00
Just as Manchester United's new generation threaten to hasten Ryan Giggs's retirement, the old man with the grey-flecked hair served a reminder of his timeless quality with a stunning goal to earn a draw against Benfica.
Giggs, two months short of his 38th birthday, surpassed the iconic figure of Raul by becoming the first player to score in 16 Champions League seasons with his 20-yard strike on 42 minutes. As eye-catching as it was, however, the goal was merely the embellishment to a majestic performance by the veteran.
Alex Ferguson might have preceded the game by comparing Wayne Rooney to Pele, but, in Giggs, he possesses football's equivalent of Benjamin Button -- a man who seems to become younger with every passing year.
For all of the evolution at Old Trafford this summer, which has seen Ferguson field some of the youngest teams of his 25-year reign as manager this season, the starting line-up in Lisbon was a return to those familiar, experienced faces seasoned by years of European service.
Seven of the 11 names on Ferguson's team-sheet started the Champions League defeat against Barcelona at Wembley in May, while Darren Fletcher, making his first United start since being struck down by a stomach virus in March, would almost certainly have faced Barcelona had he been fit.
Beyond the youthful centre-half pairing of Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, age and experience replaced the effervescence of youth and it showed in United's approach to the game. There were few cavalier raids forward and Rooney, energised by the presence of Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley in the Premier League, was left to plough a lone furrow up front on his own.
A first-half booking for unsporting behaviour following a late challenge on goalkeeper Artur, combined with a series of diversions deep into midfield territory to collect the ball, summed up his frustrations.
Perhaps the tactical approach to this game influenced Ferguson's pre-match comparison of Rooney to Pele as he would have to put in a superhuman performance to live up to that billing.
Attempting to replicate, against Benfica the carefree attacking formula which has worked so well domestically would have been frivolous and careless in equal measure, however.
Jorge Jesus has assembled an adventurous team at Estadio da Luz and Pablo Aimar, the Argentinian playmaker, proved a constant menace behind the livewire Nicolas Gaitan and powerful Oscar Cardozo.
At times, Aimar produced the vision and passes that United lacked without the retired Paul Scholes and he repeatedly dropped between Fletcher and Smalling, finding space in the hole to tee up his two attacking team-mates.
Gaitan sent a left-foot strike wide of Anders Lindegaard's far post from 20 yards before Cardozo's 20-yard shot was blocked by the Dane, starting in place of the rested David de Gea.
It was Gaitan and Cardozo who created the opening that led to Benfica taking the lead on 24 minutes, however.
Gaitan's pass resulted in Cardozo rolling on Evans' shoulder before guiding a strike beyond Lindegaard.
It was the first time United had conceded away from home in the Champions League, outside of the final itself, since an injury-time goal in the 2-1 defeat at Bayern Munich in March 2010 -- a total of 564 minutes over more than six games.
Nothing muffles a noisy stadium like an away goal and United turned the volume down to mute when Giggs equalised three minutes before half-time. The Welshman is 38 in two months' time, but there was no evidence of ageing legs as he latched on to Antonio Valencia's pass and burst into the final third before scoring his 27th Champions League goal with a left-foot strike from 20 yards.
Giggs was already the oldest goalscorer in Champions League history prior to this game, having scored in last season's semi-final victory against Schalke in Germany, yet he raised the bar by a further five months with his latest contribution.
Whether he possesses the legs to make an impact against Barcelona is another matter. The Wembley final cruelly exposed Giggs' diminishing physical attributes, but Ferguson is deploying horses for courses this season and Lisbon on a balmy evening was the perfect stage for his oldest warhorse.
Giggs turned the clock back on 64 minutes when he produced a mazy dribble reminiscent of his wonder goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final before being defied by Artur.
Giggs received Rooney's ball on the edge of the penalty area, weaved past three defenders and created a clear opening before seeing his shot pushed behind for a corner.
It was vintage Giggs, but the save kept Benfica on level terms and they would have gone ahead seconds later, but for a similarly crucial block by the outstanding Lindegaard. Valencia and Fletcher lasted 67 minutes of their first appearances of the season before former Sporting Lisbon winger Nani and Javier Hernandez were introduced.
If those changes could be put down to fatigue, the decision to swap Fabio with Phil Jones appeared solely to stem the flow of Benfica attacks as Lindegaard again did well to deny Gaitan. Gradually though, the fire subsided from the home side, allowing United to claim their point. (© Daily Telegraph, London)