Ferguson fails to find past glories as old foes produce familiar feast
"Tonight we will enjoy the flavour of European football in all of its full glory and excitement," Alex Ferguson had predicted in his programme notes.
Stand up Nostradamus. This was another of the great theatre's throbbing European nights, even if the excitement eventually defeated the glory.
Ferguson had tried to conjure up the spirit of glorious nights past against a familiar Portuguese foe, promising his men would do their utmost to rekindle the rush of the Matt Busby era and, even if the likes of Nani and Dimitar Berbatov did not let him down, the real glory of the night was that both sides lived up to their grand attacking tradition.
It was a feast, from start to finish, whizzing from end to end at helter-skelter pace, even if United's defending was, on occasion, hardly fit for the banquet.
The argument about Phil Jones's best position will rage on, but he did himself no favours if he wants to convince everyone centre-half is his preferred role.
Ferguson's vision is apparently still crystal clear. He wanted to use this game, one of the lovely, resonant fixtures of European football, to provide the latest platform for yet another rampant assault on the Champions Cup, the trophy Busby's men first won against these very opponents at Wembley 43 years ago.
This felt like the perfect night for United to dispel all the concerns about injury woes and sluggish form. Yet from the moment that Jones stretched out his left leg with no great conviction to deflect the ball into his own net, it was never going to be straightforward.
As Pablo Aimar pulled the strings with the excellent Nicolas Gaitan and made Jones look a little raw and nervous at the heart of United's defence, it was clear that, though the Lisbon giants may not be the force of yore, they have created a side who could make a formidable challenge this season.
So, United looked to their own Portuguese maestro for inspiration once Old Trafford had been silenced by Jones's early mistake. Nani's final ball too often undoes his glittering preparatory work but the moment when he scythed through Benfica's midfield, speeding past four players with searing pace, felt like the moment that United found the spirit of the night.
His beautifully delivered cross from a well-worked short free-kick saw Berbatov join the scoring luminaries.
The Bulgarian would have been the hero if he had volleyed home a glorious opportunity late on. He did not look in the mood to ponder that he had just played a key role in another splendid episode of one of European football's great rivalries. (© Daily Telegraph, London)