After four games which have seen Manchester United only take victories against Otelul Galati and only managing to register single points against Basel and Benfica, what originally appeared to be a straightforward group became a rather close and competitive set up. This week, it was the turn of Benfica to make the trip to Old Trafford, with Sir Alex Ferguson surely being aware that victory would make progression to the next round a near certainty. Prior to kick off, the main headlines regarding selection regarded the absence of Wayne Rooney due to a minor injury, with Dimitar Berbatov being given a rare opportunity heading up the United attack. Ashley Young was recalled to the side, taking position just off Berbatov, with Valencia and Nani also given starting berths. The suspension of Vidic saw Ferdinand partnered by Phil Jones at the heart of United’s defence. The game started brightly enough, with United looking to get forward, being awarded an early free kick that was squandered by Young. However, moments later, disaster as Gaitan was put through on the right, being allowed to cut in and put a cross through that was turned in by Phil Jones. In the early exchanges, with United looking a little shell shocked, the Portuguese side kept pressuring the ball, allowing the home side little room for manoeuvre and forcing the ball back to David De Gea on occasion. However as the half progressed United began to find themselves and adopt a plan of attack, with Nani notably displaying some slick dribbling finding his way past multiple players on more than one occasion and making a charge towards the box, only to be thwarted. With 30 minutes on the clock, the pressure paid off as Nani crossed for an unmarked Berbatov to head home with a well placed finish. United could well have gone into the break with the lead but this proved not to be the case. The second half showed a similar roller coaster pattern in a different order, with United making good on their possession as Evra found Fletcher with a good cross, for the Scottish midfielder to finish second time round. The joy was was cut almost immediately, as a poor back pass to De Gea was poorly cleared by the Spaniard himself, allowing Benfica to advance on the goal immediately, with Ferdinand failing to deal with the resulting cross, Pablo Aimar finished from close range. Although controlling much of the possession United failed to make it count, with mistakes becoming ever more evident and Benfica looking dangerous on the counter attack, and as the game drew to a close Benfica looked content to crowd out the midfield and settle for the draw, knowing full well that this was all that was needed to all but secure qualification for the next stage. And so it was, with United getting close but not doing enough to secure the 3 points, Ferguson and his side will be left to rue their mistakes and will hope to pick themselves up for the trip to Basel where they will hope to do what is necessary to see them progress. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) No Vidic – No Clean Sheet
Of course it would be foolish to claim that had Vidic been in the side that a clean sheet would be a foregone conclusion. However, Tuesday night, when Vidic was a notable absentee, United found their defensive frailties exposed on a number of occasions. The back four seemed to be less organised. lacking a voice to set them up accordingly. For example, in the first half, Ferdinand retrieving the ball at the back only to find no way forward and simply passed it back to De Gea again. As well as this, for all of United’s attacking potential, the possibility of being caught on the break by Benfica became a very real threat, something which they looked to do throughout the evening. Although own goals do happen, the build up that led to it showcased the way in which they may get exposed, with Gaitan being allowed all too easily to cut in and deliver a dangerous cross. The second goal was a result of simply trying to play it around at the back too much as did happen often, this time with too much pressure and a poor kick from De Gea (who’s distribution had been quite effective otherwise) that allowed Benfica to press. Perhaps United pressing forward too much made the situation worse at the back, but to concede so quickly after taking the lead is certainly a little worrying.
2) Berbatov showed he can still have an impact
After such a long spell where there have been few starts and plenty of bench warming places, fans will have been glad to see last season’s top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov given a chance to shine and give Ferguson reason not to forget him. Although for the opening part of the game he was relatively quiet, it can be argued that this was not helped by the shell shock United seemed to suffer with conceding the early goal, and the lack of service with Nani in particular looking keen to run the ball in himself than create much out of it. Although unmarked, his header for the goal must be commended, rising well and placing the ball superbly to bring the equaliser, although he was offside just about. In fact, many times in the game the Bulgarian striker looked to get involved, tracking back and providing avenues in which to create chances, unfortunately not always utilising this when he could be found in a good position. Although perhaps he should have done better when a good ball in gave him a first time volley that he put over the bar, his performance should otherwise be commended as one of the better ones on the evening.
3) Is there too much being asked of Phil Jones?
One cannot deny the talent that Phil Jones possesses as a defender and his ability to charge at opposing defences, running all evening and his tireless work rate. Certainly so far this season he has gone a long way to justify the transfer fee paid out for him and has featured in the most games for United so far. However, for all the praise being heaped on him, is there too much expected, considering he is being given responsibility at the heart of a United defence that has another player of relative inexperience in De Gea? It is easy to forget that the new recruit is only 19 years of age, as at times, particularly in the league he shows the qualities of a player far older, but at times on Tuesday night one got the impression that he may have been overwhelmed, although it can also be argued that his confidence will not have been helped by the own goal early on.
4) Too many wing-men going forward, flanks easily exposed
Much of the counter attacking potential that Benfica had came from their ability to use the width and some may argue that United did not help themselves in that respect, with Evra and Fabio the full backs often going forward and further up there was wingers Nani, Valencia and Young all given starting places. Of course Young was employed in a slightly different role on the evening but that still does not change the fact that there were 3 wide men up front with two more behind them who were keen to get forward, and for a counter attacking side it allowed them to exploit this far too much.
5) Rooney was missed
Despite dominating possession and showing attacking threat, United seemed to lack an end product, failing to make the most of the opportunities that presented themselves, sometimes proving wasteful and others simply giving the ball away far too easily. It felt as though without Rooney spearheading the attack and getting involved in the ways fans are so accustomed to, United lack the big game-changing potential that would otherwise be present. From this we can say that United may be somewhat stretched by injury with the impressive Cleverley ruled out until Christmas and with two players on the bench who had not featured at all so far this season, Rafael and Chris Smalling. However, this should not excuse a performance that has been in keeping with that of recent performances of late, where enough has been done to secure victory without looking particularly brilliant in one way or another, something which did not prove enough for the Champion’s League, and if United hope to compete into the latter stages of the competition this year, a resurgence will be necessary, particularly with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid and others looking extremely strong.