Fresh off the back of another comprehensive victory over Bolton Wanderers, United travelled to Lisbon to embark upon their Champions League campaign against familiar foe Benfica. Having reached 3 finals in the past 4 seasons in the competition, United were looking to go one better this season having suffered heartache against Barcelona in May at Wembley. Benfica’s Estadio Da Luz however presented a stern opening test for the reds, famously the scene of perhaps United’s lowest European moment under Ferguson, being dumped out of the competition in the group stages in 2005 following a 2-1 defeat to the Lisbon club. United however are a different animal in Europe these days, and a line up packed with experience took to the field with one eye on Sunday’s game against Chelsea, as well as the impeding difficulty of the game eminent in Fergie’s thinking.
With high expectations given United’s start to the season, the reds made a very disappointing start to the game, with the fluidity and crisp passing which had served us so well in the opening weeks of the season painfully lacking. Wayne Rooney was left isolated up front, and as he often does when frustrated came very deep to try and influence the game leaving United very little in front of goal. Antonio Valencia was proving a menace down the right hand side, but often his delivery into the penalty area was unchallenged by a red shirt, and Benfica centre back Luisao was having a more comfortable night than expected. At the other end, winger Gaitan and forward Cardozo were proving a handful for United, and the two combined to give the home side the lead on 24 minutes as Gaitan’s delightful pass with the outside of his boot reached the Paraguayan Cardozo who turned Jonny Evans and rifled a right foot shot into the top corner. Having enjoyed such a dominant start to the season, United now looked vulnerable as players lacking match fitness struggled to get into the game and wrestle back the initiative away from the buoyed Portugese.
Yet, with half time looming United found a seemingly improbable way back into the match courtesy of the evergreen Ryan Giggs, who probably by his own admission and largely had a half to forget. Giggs latched onto Antonio Valencia’s pass on the edge of the area, before unfurling a stunning left footed thunderbolt into the roof of the net from 20 yards out to draw United level and shift the momentum back into their favour. Having seen their lead evaporate, Benfica appeared rattled, and United came out of the traps quickly in the second half looking to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Again Giggs appeared United’s most likely creator, and should have put the reds ahead on 65 minutes as he glided past a couple of Benfica defenders, before having his shot well saved by Artur, who saved well with his feet.
Having wasted their best chance to win the match, United laboured in the final quarter as Benfica created a number of chances to snatch an unlikely victory themselves. Anders Lindegaard was to thank on several occassions as the Danish keeper making his first appearance of the season saved well from Nolito firstly, and then acrobatically from Gaitan’s curling shot from the edge of the area. The introduction of Javier Hernandez for United did little to stem the tide as the home side continued to apply pressure to the United goal. It was again substitute Nolito who perhaps squandered Benfica’s best chance of winning the match, as he burst through into the penalty area, only to scuff his shot int0 the side netting with the goal at his mercy, to the immense relief of the culpable United defence, who successfully secured the draw and the reds first point in Europe this season.
Lindegaard – 8 MOTM Slim pickings in what was a poor united performance, but Lindegaard excelled.
Fabio – 5 Lacking match fitness and it showed. Gaitan terrorised him.
Smalling – 6 Seemed slow to re adjust back to centre back but grew into match.
Evans – 6 Despite many opinions, couldn’t have done more for goal, handled Cardozo OK.
Evra – 6 Pushed forward well, still careless at the back.
Valencia – 7 United’s best attacking threat on the night. Tailed off 2nd half.
Fletcher – 5 Looked short of match fitness.
Carrick – 6 Failed to kick on after good performance against Bolton, 2010 all over again.
Park – 6 Unrequired in the game and failed to provide attacking impetuous.
Giggs – 6 Goal aside, disappointing from Giggs, seems to struggle in AM role.
Rooney – 6 Able and willing, but failed to receive the service he so desperately craved.
Nani – 6 Provided an added dimension.
Hernandez – 6 Suffered from chronic lack of service.
Jones – 6