Thursday 26 April 2018

United’s hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages depend on final game

Manchester Utd 2
Benfica 2,

Chris Bascombe

Alex Ferguson hoped to evoke images of Manchester United's glorious history to see off Benfica. Instead, his side was haunted by the memories of a more painful, recent past as their defensive self-destruction returned with potentially calamitous consequences.

Phil Jones' third-minute own goal could be considered unfortunate, but the cursory glances of Ferguson when David De Gea rediscovered his early season disastrous form to hand the Portuguese a point does not bode well for the Spanish goalkeeper.

Ferguson slumped back in his chair, scarcely believing the lead so diligently acquired had been squandered by such inexplicable carelessness when De Gea failed to adequately clear a Jones back-pass.

That this happened within a minute of Darren Fletcher putting United in front compounded the irritation. United's errors made for a spectacle worthy of the billing, but will also have shaken confidence that the defensive scars, after a 6-1 defeat to neighbours City a month ago, have been fully healed.

The Champions League is not supposed to be this good, this soon.

Traditionally, the group stage is so tedious, that there have been occasions in Novembers past when it had been necessary to check the tournament's pulse. Europe is meant to blossom in the new year, not before the grottos open for business.

When a visit from Benfica unleashes the ghostly vibrations of previous momentous meetings, Ferguson must have been yearning for the dull routine of inevitable progression which he has become accustomed to.

From the moment Jones's shin helplessly gifted the Portuguese a third-minute lead following Nicolas Gaitan's cross, there was no prospect of comfortable progress here.

The compulsion was to check the match programme to ensure we had not fast-forwarded to the knockout phase.

One end-to-end sequence midway through the first half caused such breathless excitement, even the crowd demanded a timeout.

Ashley Young was denied by goalkeeper Artur when sent clear by Dimitar Berbatov and 30 seconds later De Gea shoved aside a Pablo Aimar strike.

Benfica's unbeaten record in 20 fixtures gave this tie an air of trickiness even before a ball had been kicked.

United's team-sheet added to the apprehension, although Wayne Rooney's absence should have been no surprise.

It was inevitable once Ferguson declared the striker would be OK on the eve of the game, his usual gamesmanship on matters of team selection all too predictable.

The biggest surprise was that Nani was in the side, given United's propensity to ensure the player asked to participate in pre-match media duties is usually nowhere to be seen on the match night.

The Portuguese winger rapidly established himself as United's brightest hope after their dismal start.

His trickery revived the Old Trafford crowd as much as his team-mates and it was no surprise when the winger's cross repaired the damage of the early setback on 30 minutes as Berbatov headed expertly past Artur.

Berbatov doesn't strike you as a man who does rejuvenation. His range of emotions tend to oscillate between the casual and the slightly bothered.

Infuriating though his lack of urgency can be, there have been moments during each of his four erratic campaigns at Old Trafford, where the wisdom of his £30.75m purchase four years ago has been validated.

He looked like he was bothered about saving his United career last night, which has not always been the case.

United took the ascendancy in the moments after half-time, with Berbatov increasingly enjoying himself in the roving Rooney role.

Fabio should have secured the lead on 55 minutes, only to tamely shoot at Artur, but the momentum was now shifting permanently towards the Stretford End.

There was a sense of inevitability when United's second finally arrived on 59 minutes. Patrice Evra's cross found Fletcher and he converted after two attempts.

That made what followed even more excruciating for Ferguson. De Gea's immediate error, kicking straight to Bruno Cesar under no pressure, ended United's hopes of consolidating their advantage.

Cesar's surge and cross struck Rio Ferdinand on the back, and Aimar made no mistake.

Stung by the equaliser, United reverted to sloppiness and anxiety in the closing stages.

Berbatov wasted a chance to volley in his second 12 minutes from the end, but Rodrigo missed an even better chance to win it in the 90th minute.

United's Champions League future is just about still in their hands, but after confidently emphasising the importance of winning the group, the English champions will head to Basel needing to avoid defeat to ensure qualification. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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