Manchester United were held to a 2-2 draw at home by Benfica, meaning that they’ll have to win their last group game against Basel if they are to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League for the 15th time in 17 seasons.
Injuries again forced Sir Alex to reshuffle the pack, with Berbatov replacing the injured Rooney up front, and Jones and Ferdinand paired as centre-backs in the absence of the suspended Nemanja Vidic. With Nani and Valencia out wide, Carrick and Fletcher were given the nod in midfield, with Young supporting Berbatov up front.
United, who have never lost against a Portuguese team at home, were in for an early shock when, after three minutes, Gaitan’s cross was deflected by Jones past a hapless De Gea and into his own net.
It was the perfect start for Benfica, who could have doubled up their lead three minutes later, when Bruno Cesar fired over from a difficult angle.
Fergie had made clear before the game that he wanted to honour Sir Matt Busby’s memory by delivering a fine performance against Benfica – the team that lost 4-1 at Wembley in 1968 to earn Best, Charlton & Co the first European Cup in the club’s history – but United were unsettled by the early goal and never looked like producing a clear chance.
With Benfica happy to sit deep and break quickly on the counter, United were forced to run with the ball, failing to exploit the wide areas of the pitch, where Nani and, in particular, Valencia found life extremely difficult. Fabio showed why he’s started every European game this season with a few good runs forward, but while he could be an excellent attacking fullback – following in the footsteps of fellow Brazilians Dani Alves and Maicon – he needs to work on his positional play, as time and again he was found out tonight.
The game suddenly came alive around the 30th minute mark in the first half. First, United equalized through a brilliant Berbatov header. Young played a short free-kick to Evra who fed Nani, and the former Sporting man – playing against his arch-enemies – delivered a great ball in the box for United’s number 9 to head home.
United could have been ahead 60 seconds later when Young raced clear after a pass from Berbatov had cut Benfica’s defence wide open, but he couldn’t beat Artur.
Down at the other end, Aimar tested De Gea with a fine strike. The Argentine midfielder seemed to be rolling back the years, a decade after playing – and losing – the Champions League final with Valencia.
The second half started with United applying a sustained pressure to Benfica’s back four; Berbatov’s pass for Young was brilliantly cleared by Luisao, while Fabio saw his close range effort saved by Artur.
United stroke on the hour mark, Evra delivered a cross from the left, with Fletcher timing his run to perfection and tapping the ball in after Artur had, yet again, denied United.
60 seconds later was the Red Devils turn to be caught napping as De Gea’s clearance fell to Bruno Cesar who was allowed to run into the box and shoot, Ferdinand couldn’t clear and Aimar stunned Old Trafford with the simplest of finishes.
For all the stick Carrick receives by some section of the United fans, tonight he was one of the brightest notes for Fergie, composed on the ball and precise with his tackling. The same can’t be said about the rest of the team as United looked, yet again, sloppy and imprecise particularly at the back, as Aimar was gifted another chance with 20 minutes to go but, much to De Gea’s relief, fired over the bar.
United couldn’t keep up the tempo and, despite the late introduction of Hernandez, there was no way through for Ferguson’s men who now have to beat Basel away to win the group. A draw would be enough to see them through but it wouldn’t guarantee them top spot.
Benfica, on the other hand, are through and currently sit top of group C thanks to a better record in games against United and will face minnows Otelul Galati at home in their last game, with a win very much a realistic possibility.
United need to win their last game to guarantee themselves a chance of winning the group, which looked a straight forward conclusion after the draw in August, and to avoid the big guns in the first knock-out round.
But, at this stage, they’ll be happy to go through.