Man Utd 2-2 Benfica – United with serious work to do to save Champions League future

Benfica went to Old Trafford and came away with a point that ensures a fascinating final match day in Group C, with Manchester United going head to head with FC Basel for a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League.

It was a pulsating tie for neutrals, yet United fans – and no doubt Sir Alex Ferguson – will have been aghast at the sloppiness that dogged United’s play in the first 25 minutes. Ferguson’s men found themselves behind after just four minutes – Patrice Evra was caught out of position (a worryingly familiar occurrence this season), allowing Nicolas Gaitan time and space to cross from the right. While the ball was put into a tricky area, Phil Jones was slow to react, and could only deflect the ball past a helpless David de Gea.

Dimitar Berbatov started up front in alongside Ashley Young following Wayne Rooney’s absence through injury, yet with Benfica’s central midfield dominating Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, Young was often forced to track back, meaning that Berbatov was left isolated. Indecision and inaccuracy plagued United early on, with Antonio Valencia, Luis Nani and Fabio being particularly wasteful. However, the Portuguese winger found Berbatov with a routine cross after half an hour, with the Bulgarian deftly heading into the far corner, albeit from an offside position. Young could and should have made it two a minute later, yet Artur – impressive throughout – blocked well.

United were sloppy throughout the first 45 minutes, so to reach half-time level was something of a comfort, given the slick interchanges of Pablo Aimar and Gaitan. Luisao was dealing with United’s attacks relatively comfortably, and it was no surprise the Old Trafford faithful were cheering less than a minute after the Benfica captain departed due to injury. The Portuguese team failed to clear their lines, and Evra found Fletcher with a clever cross after the Scottish captain ghosted through a sea of confused defenders.

Benfica visibly tired after a frenetic start, and with Carrick and Fletcher pressing high up the pitch and dominating the play, the goal seemed to mark the point at which United could settle down. Yet to the travelling fans’ delight, Benfica were level 80 seconds later. Jones’ backpass to de Gea was a little strong, yet the Spaniard’s clearance was too weak; Bruno Cesar picked it up, drove at goal, and when his cross was only partly blocked by Rio Ferdinand, Aimar was on hand to tap in an equaliser that few inside the stadium could have predicted.

Both teams rallied, with Berbatov wasting a glorious volley with 12 minutes remaining, while Rodrigo could have won the game at the death after an impressive run, yet a point apiece was a fair result on reflection.

United dominated for spells, yet naive defending cost them dearly, while careless crossing (from Young in particular) meant that the threat from wide positions was routinely stifled, despite the overdue appearance of Javier Hernandez.

Ferguson and his players will fully believe that they can go to Basel and pick up at least a point, yet the group that originally seemed to be a cakewalk is fast becoming an unnerving reminder that lackadaisical organisation can leave a bitter taste on the European nights that the Scottish manager so revels in.

Man Utd (4-4-2): De Gea; Fabio (Smalling 82), Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia (Hernandez 80), Carrick, Fletcher, Nani; Young, Berbatov

Benfica (4-2-3-1): Artur; Emerson, Luisao (Miguel Vitor 58), Garay, Perreira; Javi Garcia, Bruno Cesar; Aimar (Amorim 83), Gaitan (Matic 67), Witsel; Machado

Did you know… United have now let in six goals in the Champions league this season; Ferguson’s men only conceded four in the whole 2010-11 run before the defeat against Barcelona in last season’s final.

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