United welcomed Portuguese side Benfica to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of their Champions League group stage campaign. Having endured a relatively poor start, United had to win to ensure top spot in the group and a berth in the last 16 of the competition, importantly avoiding European giants such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the next round. With Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck both ruled out with injuries, Dimitar Berbatov was handed a rare start for United, only the Bulgarian’s 5th of the season, as Ashley Young also returned after a spell on the sidelines with a tow injury.
With Benfica knowing a point was enough to all but see them through, it was expected that United would have to remain patient throughout the game and wait for their opportunities. However, the gameplan went out of the window after 3 minutes, as some lovely link up play between the dangerous Gaitan and Axel Witsel, saw the Argentine’s low hard cross diverted into his own goal by Phil Jones, giving the reds a large hill to climb early on. With urgency now required, United responded well to the goal asserting themselves upon the game, with Michael Carrick pulling the strings from midfield, and Nani running at the Benfica defence with menace. It was therefore deserved when on the half hour mark, Nani’s cross was superbly nodded home by Berbatov to draw United level, much to the relief of the Old Trafford faithful. Seconds after the restart United should have taken the lead, as some delightful play from Berbatov played in Ashley Young, but the England winger’s rustiness showed as his shot was hit straight at the keeper handing Benfica a reprieve.
Half time came at a bad time for the reds, who had finally hit their stride and were looking dangerous with every attack. The second half continued in much the same vein as the first, with United controlling the ball but looking prone to Benfica counter attacks, with reported United target Gaitan in particular proving a handful. A crazy 2 minutes on the hour mark ultimately decided the fate of the game, as firstly United took the lead through Fletcher, the Scottish midfielder diverting Patrice Evra’s cross home at the second attempt temporarily sending the reds top of the group. However, some sloppy play from the restart handed the initiative straight back to the Portuguese visitors, as firstly a poor back pass by Phil Jones was poorly cleared by De Gea, and the resulting break was steered home by Pablo Aimar leaving United with it all to do again. Seemingly happy with a point, Benfica adopted a very defensive formation attempting to secure the point they needed to all but win the group. Javier Hernandez was introduced to try and salvage United’s group campaign, as the pressure intensified in the final quarter of the game, but clear chances were a rarity. A delightful cross from Nani found Berbatov in acres of space in the area, but the Bulgarian could only steer his volley over the bar and with it went United’s best chance of avoiding the perilous 2nd place in the group. A tense finale now awaits in Basle, with the reds needing a point in order to qualify through to the next round against a Basel side still in with a chance of qualification themselves.
De Gea – 6 Mistake led to Benfica equaliser.
Fabio – 6 Barnstorming runs up the field.
Jones – 5 Night to forget for the England defender.
Ferdinand – 6 Struggled to live with Gaitan.
Evra – 6 Superb cross for Fletcher goal, defensive worries remain.
Valencia – 6 Quiet first half followed by strong second.
Carrick – 8 MOTM Kept United ticking and very tidy in possession. Potential resurgence?
Fletcher – 6 Took his goal well.
Nani – 7 Constant threat throughout with some majestic dribbling.
Young – 6 Looked like he was lacking match sharpness.
Berbatov – 7 Held the ball up well and displayed some magnificent build up.
Hernandez – 5 Constantly offside.
Smalling – 6 Welcome return to action.