MAN UNITED 2, BENFICA 2
Manchester United are making hard work of their qualification to the knockout phase of the Champions League.
Their fate won’t be decided until the final game of Group C when they travel to Switzerland needing a draw to guarantee a top-two spot.
United tossed away the chance to claim their place in the last 16 after being held at home by Portuguese side Benfica who booked their passage to the next phase.
It was another night when United’s defensive frailties of not so long ago surfaced again as they looked a shadow of the side which reached last season’s final.
They will certainly need to tighten things at the back if they are to reach the latter stages of the competition on the evidence of their charitable showing against Benfica.
Sir Alex Ferguson was upbeat, however, declaring United were unlucky not to win and seal their qualification saying they played some terrific football.
The United manager said: “I thought we did well. It was hard to lose a goal so early, an own goal, and it took time to get into our rhythm.
“We played well and didn’t deserve that, but that’s the way is goes in football.”
Ferguson was convinced United would have seen out the game had they not conceded their second goal so soon after establishing a 2-1 lead.”
He also added that finishing runners-up in the group may not necessarily be a bad thing, even though they are likely to draw one of Europe’s big guns.
“It makes it harder, but may be a bigger game may suit us against Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich,” he explained.
United, whose European campaign has been far from convincing, could not have got off to a worse start as Benfica stole ahead in the third minute on a night when they were without the injured Wayne Rooney and Key defender Nemanja Vidic through suspension.
Nicolas Gaitan fiercely-driven cross from the right was turned into his own goal by the hapless Phil Jones.
That goal rocked United to the core and for the opening half hour they played as though in a sense of deep shock.
United drew level in the 30th minute with their first serious goal attempt as Dimitar Berbatov, making only his fifth start of the campaign, grabbed only his second goal and one of huge importance.
Nani provide superb delivery with a cross from the left and Berbatov’s glancing header eluded keeper Artur’s despairing dive low to his left.
Suddenly United were in the ascendancy and only a fine block by Artur denied Ashley Young a second United goal in little over one minute.
It was far from one-way traffic, however, as Pablo Aimar had a shot beaten away by David De Gea.
United regained the lead just before the half and immediately after Benfica had lost captain, central defender and Brazilian international Luisao through injury.
This time Patrice Evra sent over a teasing cross from the left behind the United defence for Darren Fletcher to ghost in from deep to score at the second attempt after Artur half blocked his initial shot.
No sooner had United gone ahead for the first time than Benfica pegged them back with a goal which stemmed from another piece of abject defending.
De Gea’s poor clearance surrendered possession as Bruno Cesar broke from deep and drove a low ball across the face of goal. It struck Rio Ferdinand in the mid-riff allowing Argentinian Aimar to fire into the roof of the net from a couple of yards.
Both sides had chances to win the game in the final half hour as Aimar had an opening for Benfica while Fletcher and Berbatov could have scored for United.
Benfica had a clear chance in the 89th minute when Rodrigo burst in the box after a terrific run from deep only for his shot to ripple the side netting.
Then in the third minute of stoppage time United substitute Javier Hernandez saw a near-post header deflected narrowly wide for a corner as the game finished all square as the visitors celebrated qualification at the final whistle.