It’s European Champions League action tonight as Manchester United try to set all the problems, arguments and bitter disappointment of recent events behind them and focus on this crucial group stage match against Benfica of Portugal.
Longterm fans of The Red Devils will be acutely aware that Benfica were the team Manchester United defeated to win the European Cup for the first time back in the distant past of the 1968 version of the late Sir Matt Busby’s Babes, winning 4-1 after extra time.
Tonight’s result is all that matters now and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson sticks to his tactical guns with another, albeit of necessity different, 4-5-1 lineup of Edwin Van Der Sar in goal, Phil Bardsley, Rio Ferdinand, John O’Shea and Kieron Richardson as this week’s back four and the welcome return of Ryan Giggs on the left of a midfield completed by Darren Fletcher, Alan Smith, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo playing behind lone frontman Ruud van Nistelrooy. The unlikely looking subs bench is filled by Tim Howard, Ji-Sung Park, Liam Miller, Gerard Pique, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, Guiseppe Rossi and Lee Martin.
Benfica are now managed by Dutch legend Ronald Koeman and playing 4-4-2 with a lineup that I entirely don’t know but that looks like this:- Moreira, Nelson-Luisao-Rocha-Leo, Beto-Manuel-Petit-Simao, and Miccoli-Gomes up front.
Given all the recent difficulties, United start the match really positively, determined to set the record straight where it matters, out on the pitch. Everyone is looking sharp and up for it, as indeed they should be!
Benfica have clearly come to the Theatre of Dreams to play counter-attack against a United side that has little choice but to go for the win after the disappointing draw two weeks ago in Spain. It’s great to see Ryan Giggs, captaining the team tonight, involved so positively right from the start as the Reds look to control midfield.
There’s a lot of back and forth right through the first half with the home team naturally being more positive and looking for an early advantage. Apart from a brilliant van Nistelrooy shot after 15 minutes that strikes the bar, there’s little to report until, in the fortieth minute, Ronaldo is fouled and the subsequent free kick, whipped in right footed by Captain Giggs, strikes the Benfica wall and deflects right into the net. It’s GOOOOOOAAAAAALLLL and 1-0 to United! That’s about it for the first half and the referee blows his whistle to end the half with United playing with a lot more self belief than of late.
Fifteen minutes later Benfica get the second half underway and coach Koeman has clearly told them to get after United’s inexperienced defence. The Reds back four are having to play out of their skins but are looking up for the job and the makeshift midfield are getting back to help. So far things are looking hopeful for the Manchester men.
On the hour mark Alan Smith brings down Miccoli on the edge of the penalty area and Benfica captain Simao fires in a vicious shot that leaves Van Der Sar no chance and it’s GOOOALLL to Benfica 1-1.
To their credit, United take this hammer blow in their stride and keep pressing hard for another goal. It’s pretty much one way traffic but Benfica have switched to a more defensive 4-5-1, obviously happy to settle for the draw, and the way through the Portuguese defence proves elusive.
Our own little Portuguese man of war, Cristiano Ronaldo, has a clear shooting chance from close range in the 65th minute but goalie Moreira somehow manages to tip the ball onto the bar; the next moment Van Der Sar is leaping to block a fierce shot from Benfica’s Italian striker Miccoli.
It all gets bogged down in midfield for a while and you can sense the nagging doubt creeping in. Another draw, especially at home, would be very discouraging at this stage of an already challenging season.
With a little more than five minutes left to go, United’s latest right back, local lad Phillip Bardsley, 20, races down the right wing and wins a corner. Giggs takes it, right-footed again, and the tall braided figure of Rio Ferdinand rises and flicks it on to Ruud van Nistelrooy who makes no mistake from perhaps 2 metres out and it’s GOOOOOAAAALLL 2-1 to United!
Benfica fight back and use attacking tactical substitutions in desperate search of a late equalizer but there’s too little time and after a miss at each end and two minutes of extra time it’s all over. Victory for Manchester United and vindication for Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics with the added pluses of the welcome return of Ryan Giggs, my choice as Man of the Match, and the impressive debut of Phillip Bardsley at right back.