After a truly breathtaking start to the season, there was plenty of excitement in the air in anticipation of Manchester United’s opening game in the Champion’s League.
With Sir Alex Ferguson keen to play down his side’s ferocious start to the season, it would have been difficult to quell such euphoria given the incredibly one-sided nature of recent results. Of course many fans are aware that the added Champions League games are an extra drain on the squad and given that there are simply very few, if any, easy games then we find the difficulty level steps up and suddenly dominant performances are not so easy to come by. Indeed, that appeared to be the case as an impressive Benfica side provided stiff competition from a United side that looked different from recent weeks, with the likes of Michael Carrick, Ji-Sung Park, Fabio Da Silva, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia. Perhaps the most notable change to the starting line up was the inclusion of Anders Lindegaard, understood to be to rest David De Gea for the weekend game against Chelsea, although this did not stop some speculating that he had been dropped for other reasons.
From the beginning, Benfica were an attacking threat, with the likes of Aimar and Cardozo creating chances up front, even though United had more possession. The danger posed led to a goal as Cardozo controlled a long pass with his chest and fire home from 16 yards. After this Benfica looked the more likely to score again, but it was United who struck back when Ryan Giggs brought the ball towards the box and fired a superb shot into the top right corner to bring his team back into the tie. Despite other chances later on, the most dangerous of which came courtesy of the Portuguese side, the game drew to a close at 1-1, a result that may be considered a solid start if not ideal. Certainly, there is room for improvement and with that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Anders Lindegaard is ready to capitalise on his chances
Much was made of the decision to start Lindegaard ahead of David De Gea, although most without an inclination to speculate assumed this was to give him a rest given an upcoming tie with Chelsea and to give the big Danish ‘keeper a run out and a chance to impress. Unfortunately, he happened to be between the posts for the first time United conceded away since March 2010, although it was certainly not his fault, rather a superb finish from Cardozo that may have been dealt with better by the defence. Sir Alex Ferguson made it clear after the match that David De Gea would be recalled to the starting line up for the weekend, but Lindegaard certainly made his case if it became apparent that all faith in the young Spaniard had been lost. A string of good saves and solid goalkeeping will have impressed, denying Benfica on more than one occasion from strong scoring positions. Perhaps the only slight criticism was that his distribution was not particularly effective early on, but this improved and was probably not helped by the fact that United were often being crowded out and out-muscled in midfield. Regardless, an impressive performance all round.
2) What does Dimitar Berbatov have to do to get a game?
It was understandable that record signing Dimitar Berbatov would have to wait for a starting place given the superb early form of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez taking his place after. However, knowing that changes would be made for Wednesday night’s game, with the purpose of providing minutes for those who may not have had many lately, it is baffling that once again the Bulgarian striker would find himself overlooked, this time not featuring at all. After all the speculation during the Summer, Ferguson praised him for the way he responded to not featuring in the Champions League final, but it would appear that there is little faith in Berbatov right now, and the wait goes on for a significant role in a game. In fact it could be argued Berbatov could have had a strong part to play, considering Rooney struggled to make an impact up front for much of the game, with the introduction of Hernandez doing little to change that due in part to a lack of clear cut chances and effective service. One could make a point that Berbatov’s way of holding up the ball and control would have added an extra dimension to an attack that struggled to make much of the possession they had. It is well known that Berbatov is not considered a player to make an impact from the bench, but that only strengthens the argument that he needs to be given opportunities to make any impact at all, particularly for a player who thrives off confidence the way he often does.
3) The midfield struggled for control
Despite enjoying much of the possession, there were times where United;s midfield appeared to get crowded out. It seemed Carrick may have been asked to play a more defensive role, something which did not work out quite as well as hoped, as he struggled to make his mark on the game and make the position his own. Of course he and Darren Fletcher both have not featured much this term so far and it may be said that a lack of game time and “ring rust” so to speak, played a part in what appeared to be the midfield being crowded out by the more aggressive Portuguese. As mentioned before, this also meant Benfica created the better of the chances and could well have won on the night, had it not been for Lindegaard being alert and responsive. As well as this the defence seemed to struggle to cope with the attacking threat posed, although not appearing weak was certainly tested on numerous occasions.
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