Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League are hanging in the balance after they were held to yet another draw at home by Benfica. A pulsating game at Old Trafford yielded four goals, thereby resulting in Benfica leading Group C with just one game remaining. Benfica will play host to Otelul Galati on Matchday 6, a game they are expected to win comfortably, while Manchester United face a tricky trip to Basel knowing they have to avoid defeat in order to qualify or face an early exit from Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
Manchester United’s defensive frailties were exposed yet again on Tuesday evening by Benfica as the Portuguese giants ruthlessly punished the hosts’ individual errors. The same back four that faced Basel in the 3-3 draw on Matchday 3 was sent out by Sir Alex Ferguson and just as on that night, there was an air of uncertainity surrounding them.
Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand struggled to cope with Benfica’s movement off the ball and were strung out to dry too often than not by Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Individually, Jones and Ferdinand are good enough to square off against any opponent but as has been demonstrated on many occasions this season, they are better off with Vidic alongside them. Fabio was far too casual with his passing and even though he brings a lot of energy to the team and provides an extra body in attack, he is still learning the defensive part of his game. He was caught out of position on several occasions and was lucky to not be cautioned. Patrice Evra was the subject of some early Benfica attacks, the visitors clearly identifying him as the weak link. That’s where they found their opening goal, when a slick passing move resulted in Phil Jones putting the ball into his own net. He was beaten far too easily by Gaitan throughout the game.
The central midfield pairing of Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick was a little too flat and static at times and were over run by Benfica. Both of them do not possess pace and their lack of it was a cause for concern all evening. Carrick seems to have finally found some form however, as he followed up an impressive display at Swansea with another accompished passing game. Fletcher was a bundle of energy throughout but he did struggle to keep a lid on Pablo Aimar.
Antonio Valencia had an evening to forget on the right hand side for Manchester United, as he failed to beat his man time and time again. He failed to trouble Emerson Conceicao and his decision-making was questionable. Ashley Young, playing behind Berbatov, looked a little off the pace throughout the game. He has just returned from a toe injury and his lack of match sharpess was apparent in the early stages. He failed to beat Artur after some wonderful link up play with Berbatov and his final ball was lacking penetration. He should be restored to the left wing for Saturday’s encounter with Newcastle when Rooney returns.
On the bright side, Nani looks to have finally found his form as he produced an electrifying display that had Benfica reeling at times. He was outstanding on the night, running rings around the Benfica midfield. There was a spark in his performance that has been sorely lacking in recent weeks and will be a welcome boost to United. Up front, Dimitar Berbatov registered only his second goal this season, his first in Europe since 2008. His link up play with the United midfield was exemplary at times and his ball control defied logic as he plucked it out of thin air on more than one occasion. The only blotch on the evening for the Bulgarian was fifteen minutes from time when he missed a glorious chance to grab all three points for his team when he volleyed over from six yards. The tag of great goalscorer comtinues to elude him, as another chance given to him by Ferguson to make his claim for a starting spot slipped from his grasp.
The drubbing they recieved in the Mancunian derby has still not been completely flushed out of United’s system as recent performances have been more about caution and a case of good old fashioned luck, but last night they created a lot more chances and with Vidic having completed his suspension last evening, they are fancied to go to Basel and get a result to seal qualification. But they will have to do it the hard way again, the only way Manchester United know how.