Rashford impact brightens dull night
Man Utd 2 Benfica 0
Marcus Rashford is only just out of his teenage years and yet, as the youngest Manchester United first-team regular, he has a habit of reminding his club just what it is to play with the kind of fearlessness that the great traditions of Old Trafford were built upon.
On his 20th birthday, it was Rashford's second-half run that won the penalty with which United secured victory against Benfica, and their fourth straight Champions League win that all but puts them into the knockout stages after Christmas.
For Jose Mourinho, it will naturally be a feeling that his job is done again, another clean sheet and the possibility that some of the pressure is off in the build-up to the gruelling Christmas programme.
Even so, it was not until Rashford's intervention, two minutes after coming on, that United could be sure of victory from Daley Blind's left-footed penalty that was blasted down the centre of Mile Svilar's goal, the second the home team had been awarded but the first they had scored.
The teenage Benfica goalkeeper had saved Anthony Martial's spot-kick in the first half, then later deflected in an unfortunate own goal in what proved another mixed evening for the young man.
United had looked anxious defending a one-goal lead at times and Mourinho's evident frustration with some of his team's passing reflected that.
There were mistakes creeping in at the back and, as United dropped deeper to block what was a fairly mediocre opponent, there was always the danger that they might concede.
As for the possession, it was only 51pc in United's favour over the course of the game, and Old Trafford was emptying rapidly before the final whistle.
Those who had stayed had at least seen a wonderful run from Rashford, dashing inside from a position on the left and going past the challenges of Andreas Samaris and Ruben Dias before Samaris tried his luck again and brought the United man down. It looked at first as if Romelu Lukaku, now six games without a goal, wanted the ball but Mourinho insisted from the touchline that Blind take the penalty.
It was another night when the 18-year-old rookie 'keeper Svilar seemed to be cramming a lifetime's experience into one game.
He had carried one over his own goal-line to lose the game in Lisbon two weeks earlier but the faith of Rui Vitoria, the Benfica manager, has been unwavering.
He has played in the two Liga victories since then and he was in goal again for the trip to Old Trafford.
There were just 14 minutes on the clock when he faced Martial from the penalty spot, the Frenchman coming down the left channel and being brought down by the Brazilian full-back Douglas. The Benfica players seemed to think that Martial had gone down too easily and they may have had a point.
As for Martial's penalty, to the right of the teenage goalkeeper, it was brilliantly saved by Svilar, who took one step to his left originally and then threw himself in the opposite direction.
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Martial spent the rest of the half trying to make amends and, in spite of his miss, he was United's best attacking player. Having offered precious little in the game on home turf, Benfica proved more of a threat this time.
Mourinho had selected Scott McTominay, the 20-year-old home-grown midfielder making his first Champions League start for the club.
It meant the demotion of Ander Herrera, who did start against Tottenham on Saturday but has looked off his best form in recent weeks.
Svilar would have had a good view of David de Gea's brilliant save from a clean hit from Diogo Goncalves in the 18th minute, turning a goalbound shot over the bar.
The young goalkeeper would have felt he also had Nemanja Matic's shot well covered in injury-time at the end of the first half but the ball came off a post and ricocheted off Svilar's back before rolling back into the net.
It was the kind of thing that can happen to any goalkeeper, and at least Svilar can look back and feel that he did his best.
It had not been a particularly impressive half from United but they went in with the lead and Mourinho switched Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Jesse Lingard, who seemed to have been playing just behind the front two of Lukaku and Martial without much effect.
There was a roar for Rashford when he came on and his pace and directness proved too much for Benfica to handle.
Svilar had done so well to keep out Martial's first-half penalty and this time, when he faced a second, he committed himself to his left while Blind drilled a shot down the centre.
As the game played out, it was only the Benfica supporters who could be heard.
United have scored 12 and conceded just once in four Champions League victories but this one had left the home crowd flat again. Sunday's visit to Chelsea presents different challenges, but one suspects Mourinho will be approaching it in much the same conservative fashion. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)