Qualification from the Champions League hangs in the balance for Manchester United after their 2-2 draw with Benfica. But is elimination a blessing in disguise?
Manchester United supporters can’t believe their luck. Witnessing two good games out of five in the insomnia remedy Champions league group stage is an enviable ratio (unless you’re in the de facto Group of Death), and the key is to concede.
Against Basel two months ago their complacency was exposed by the swashbuckling Swiss, whereas against Benfica Phil Jones was good enough to forbid anyone slipping into their slumber in the 3rd minute. United have however only won four from their last 12 Champions League group stage matches.
Detaching, sorry, starting Dimitar Berbatov in the lonesome role of sole striker is invariably ill-advised, but United had to attack from the off and consequently looked like Manchester United.
Erring on the side of caution the past month, there was instead promptness and audacity from Ferguson’s team. Irrespective of the result, it was a relief to see United defect from the s**t on a stick ‘concentration’, although it’s return is feasible in Basel in a fortnight’s time.
Players displayed the vigour that had hitherto been lacking in the competition and had perhaps contributed to the corresponding league fixture performances. Chelsea, Norwich and Manchester City had, to differing successes, capitalised on mundane United European ventures. Only Sunderland could be accused of not offering a firm test as United remained under-par following their defeat of Oțelul Galați.
Reliably forlorn without a foil, Berbatov however played like the maverick who beguiled Tottenham supporters during his memorable two seasons at White Hart Lane. Ashley Young was the latest central solution in a series of square-pegs-in-round-holes manoeuvres, but his poor form continued, piling more of the burden onto the striker.
Although his goal was offside and he continued to find himself too far ahead of play, Berbatov embodied an aura that frightened Benfica’s defence. Fleet of foot, his enterprising graft (that’s right) was never rewarded with a teammate’s finish. Fitting perhaps then, for all the Bulgarian’s positives, his final word was a volley blazed into the Stretford End at 2-2.
It was the kind of chance he would have dispatched without a flicker of thought at Spurs. He once executed two sublime blasts against Braga four-and-a-half-years ago; they were food and drink to him and – most notably – more difficult. His ability is more than worthy of United’s standard, yet he continues to wrangle with the mental baggage that comes with gracing the Old Trafford turf.
Maybe United failed to convert gilt-edged chances because they hadn’t attacked for so long.
Another ex-Spurs buy who has split supporters is Michael Carrick. Atypically he was not only physical against the Lisbon side, but he was venturing into their third of the field. Partnered by Darren Fletcher, conceding shouldn’t be a problem for the pair but scoring should be. The insurance policy of two cautious and disciplined midfielders enable the Wallsend Boys’ Club graduate to roam further afield than his partner to offer another string to United’s attacking bow. How ironic then that it was Fletcher who gave United a brief lead.
Benfica’s Gaitán – a player United have monitored this season – excelled at the start but faded once the Reds got a foothold in the game. He is a visibly talented trequartista who would improve United and thrive with a better supporting cast, yet he played second fiddle to the evergreen Pablo Aimar. Although his equaliser was routine, the experience he displayed in possession and savvy passing outranked his occasionally wasteful Argentine colleague.
Los Encarnados were nevertheless fortunate to yield a draw against their hosts. Young, Fabio da Silva and the aforementioned Berbatov volley were three one-on-ones spurned when the scores were level. Artur saved from the former two but both attempts were generic efforts. Maybe United failed to convert gilt-edged chances because they hadn’t attacked for so long.
A draw in Basel will seal progress, but United will have to make do without their two best midfielders. Tom Cleverley will be injured and Carrick is suspended, having been booked despite a fair tackle on Aimar. RotBlau bypassed United with such ease at Old Trafford in September that a repeat at St Jakob-Park would augment United’s carelessness. Fortunately Nemanja Vidic will add steel to what is effectively a knockout match.
Yet qualification will come via second place, win or draw. Benfica will vanquish the Romanian whipping boys, which could draw United alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Although they may, on the other hand, face Apoel Nicosia, Zenit St Petersberg, Internazionale or Marseille.
Maybe elimination would be a good thing. United aren’t good enough to win the Champions League and the alarm bell would have to be addressed, whilst pouring all the desire and experience into the Premier League. The Glazers’ wallets would be hit, and that can only be a good thing. Even if it’s bad.
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