Henry Winter once innovatively opined that the Champions League group stage is ‘like the Carling Cup with croissants’. It’s certainly not nerve-shredding, and for a Manchester United supporter it usually provides calm viewing ahead of the adrenaline-spiked bread-and-butter of the Premier League. This season, despite boasting a fresher squad, United actually appear further away from conquering Europe than they did at their doomed date at Wembley in May. Surreally, Reds can be forgiven for viewing the world’s premier club competition with a deadpan Bill Murray complexion. Glazernomics ensure that the leeching Addams Family in Tampa however are keen observers.
The Estadio da Luz has provided some seminal moments for United, from anointing George Best as the Fifth Beatle in 1966 to 2005’s pathetic crash at the group stages of the Champions League. Retrospectively the darkness in the Stadium of Light nearly six years ago was a blessing in disguise since the club had stagnated in the competition and although Wednesday evening almost certainly won’t be heralded in years to come in the same esteem as that 2-1 defeat in Lisbon, the set-up was pessimistically similar.
Sir Alex Ferguson made eight changes from Saturday’s rout at the Reebok, an inevitability given Sunday’s fixture at home to Chelsea in what was an opportunity to give squad players a run-out, but it was the cautious approach that surprised when the team sheet was revealed. Such an undue volume of tinkering came to the detriment of the team, posing as the antithesis to this season’s rip-roaring start on the domestic front.
United’s brand of football has been an immeasurable improvement on the laborious style they were often synonymous with last season, yet discarding that carefree approach was puzzling when one considers that Benfica are an uninspiring side. Ferguson stated in his press conference that United had to be wary of their hosts’ midfield three, which is ironic since a team from Catalonia operate with a midfield three yet he played only Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. Was he amnesiac in May?
Two insurance policies in Carrick and Darren Fletcher was not only excessive but ineffectual. It’s puzzling why Ferguson has rarely paired Fletcher and Anderson considering their compatibility, instead stubbornly throwing caution to the wind with not one, but two underwhelming players. Carrick and Fletcher are both good midfielders but the former has endured a three-year regression whilst the latter, aside from his debilitating and endless virus, experienced a poor campaign last season. Conspicuous by his absence, the evening reaffirmed how key a cog Anderson has become in the United machine.
United’s brand of football has been an immeasurable improvement on the laborious style they were often synonymous with last season...discarding that carefree approach was puzzling
No longer a Toblerone-shaped square-peg-in-a-round-hole, his vibrancy and energetic surges were severely lacking, which is in stark contrast to Carrick, now 30, who is struggling to remain in sync with the tempo during periods of play. Although unfairly labelled the scapegoat, even he will remain baffled decades from now on his death bed when he muses just how and why he was rewarded with a three-year contract in March.
Subsequently United, worryingly, resembled England at Wembley last week. Wayne Rooney did himself a favour giving a six-out-of-ten performance since it should convince his manager not to play him at the tip of the arrow when he has been awesome as a number 10 this year. He can play that role but it should be reserved for Barcelona or Real Madrid, not unspectacular also-rans. There’s also the Javier Hernández factor considering how he and Rooney operate on the same wavelength.
Yet United’s extreme caution, like all the king’s horses and men being unable to put Humpty Dumpty together again, cannot always safeguard Jonny Evans from being bullied by a striker, and Oscar Cardozo hardly broke sweat before his brilliant finish halfway through the first half. The irony of Evans’ own personal relapse is that it seems to have stemmed from when he was told by Ferguson to ‘f*****g wake up’ at the San Siro over 18 months ago. He and the flustering Fabio da Silva should be sacrificed ahead of Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge gracing the Old Trafford turf, in favour of Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand.
Meanwhile, the Croxteth man was predictably isolated, detached and dropping so deep he was in the blue sea, especially since there was barely any pace from the midfield three behind him, which again underlined how unfathomable it was that said area wasn’t strengthened for a third summer warranted. On the occasion Ryan Giggs did probe forward he scored a superb equaliser to admit how unnecessarily reticent United were and how vulnerable Benfica were.
Both sides, despite being denied by good goalkeeping by Anders Lindegaard and Artur and playing at a competitive tempo, were however clearly contented with the point. Call it arrogance, but United, despite the unparalleled ignominy suffered in the Ferguson era around Christmas time in 2005, know they will qualify and Benfica’s potential progress will be defined by their clashes with FC Basel. Pass the croissants.
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