Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Twinkle Toes Enjoys His Return Home

Louis Saha'’s second-half strike gave Manchester United their first UEFA Champions League away win in three years (hard to believe) and allowed them to avenge last season'’s nightmare in Lisbon. Rarely convincing against a Benfica side responsible for their embarrassingly early European exit 12 months ago, United nevertheless carved out a triumph based on grit, determination and the flair provided by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Last year he was left to rue United'’s exit from Europe, showing his disgust with a one-fingered salute to Benfica supporters. Though Saha took the glory with his third goal in two Champions League games, it was Ronaldo who threatened more, especially in the latter stages as the visitors looked to exploit the gaps left by a Benfica side desperate to force a deserved equaliser.

The victory cemented United'’s position at the top of Group F, although concern still lingers about the form of Wayne Rooney, who worked hard without looking like ending a barren streak in this competition that now extends to 11 matches. Looking decidedly heavy legged, he was replaced by Darren Fletcher five minutes from time. Having expressed total faith in Rooney prior to kick-off, Sir Alex Ferguson hardly helped his young striker by stationing him on the left side of what was supposed to be a three-man support team playing just behind lone striker Saha.

However, with most of United's attacks coming down the other flank, where Ronaldo was attempting to put his nightmare of last December behind him, Rooney was a virtual bystander. Struggling for touch and control, the England man was a shadow of the player who has terrorized defenses throughout his fledgling career. Not that Rooney was on his own in trudging away from the opening period feeling he had not done himself justice.

Given that Ferguson was persuaded to part with a possible $23.6M for Michael Carrick in the belief his passing could open up the best defenses, the former Tottenham player was a disappointment. For a player of such supposed high caliber, Carrick gave the ball away far too often, seemed to bring United's attacks to a grinding halt on a regular basis, and was also rightly booked for a late tackle on Petit.

It was Nemanja Vidic though who gifted possession to Paulo Jorge and presented Benfica with the best opportunity of the opening period. Jorge quickly found Nuno Gomes, who took aim from 20 yards, only for Edwin van der Sar to make a good save.

The Dutchman was certainly one of United's most effective performers, along with Gabriel Heinze, who marked his first European outing since rupturing cruciate ligaments in Villarreal last season with typical tenacity. Ronaldo also rose above average, leaving Georgios Karagounis for dead in the 13th minute with a smart turn before letting fly with a stinging 25-yard shot that proved too much for Quim to hold. Saha was unable to corral the rebound as he muffed it out of play for a goal kick

In truth, while enjoying much of the possession, Benfica are not very good. They have decent defenders and show industry and inventiveness in the middle of the park, but the end product stinks. They were unable to trouble van der Sar consistently and in general played a game that was centered on trying to get a United player sent off. The impression I got from my living room was that Fernando Santos had sent his players onto the field with instructions to get under the skin of Man U and draw as many cards as possible. Benfica players were going down all night as if a sniper was in the stands.

Nonetheless, Benfica took an even firmer stranglehold on the contest at the start of the second half than they had done in the first, with Rooney'’s unhappy evening continuing with two woeful passes which gifted possession to the hosts. The one saving grace for the visitors was that their goal was still intact, a fact they duly exploited on the hour with a strike which was completely unexpected.

A piece of trademark quick thinking from Paul Scholes saw him send Ronaldo racing forward with a pass delivered from inside his own area. As he accelerated forward, Ronaldo had the vision to spot Saha lurking to his right and, after rolling the pass onwards, the Frenchman continued his run, stepped inside, then smashed a superb shot into the top left-hand corner.

The goal gave the game a totally different complexion. Suddenly, United'’s rearguard action looked more like an intelligent attempt to soak up pressure and hit on the break. Saha might have grabbed a second, as might Rooney, whose fitness should at least improve for the amount of running he did. It took a remarkable triple save from Quim in the 87th minute, denying Ronaldo, Fletcher and Carrick, to prevent United doubling their margin of victory.

Coming away from the match with the three points will please United fans who should now see the knockout stages on the horizon. Though they didn'’t play very well, giving the ball away naively the chief complaint, they have to like the result that puts their Portuguese bogeymen in a tight situation going into Matchday 3. Coupled with Celtic's win against FC Copenhagen, Benfica will need to go for the three points in Glasgow on October 17th to retain any chance of getting out of the group. From what I saw today, I wouldn't bet on it.

Man of the Match: Cristiano Ronaldo

Match Stats [UEFA]


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