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Dec 6, 2006

The risk of conservatism

Uncharacteristic conservatism almost cost Manchester United their place in the last 16 of Champions League. Before they rediscovered their cavalier instincts and, in the process, their swagger, a second successive, barely credible, exit from the group stages beckoned.

Eliminated from Europe in December last year by Benfica, the same opposition they faced at Old Trafford on Wednesday, the home side elevated themselves from third to first place in their group with a thrilling fight-back featuring goals from Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha, who produced three of several stellar performances.

The catalyst for their metamorphosis was a Benfica goal. For 27 minutes the centre of the midfield resembled Britain's roads, increasingly gridlocked as frustration mounted and for that, the fault lay with Manchester United.

Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson was testing the theory that it is possible to play for a draw (it was not); perhaps he was concerned that fielding a central midfield partnership of just Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick could leave United outnumbered or out-muscled; perhaps his team were showing signs of the complacency that cost them dearly 12 months ago; whichever, they appeared to be intent on condemning themselves to the UEFA Cup.

They were playing the 4-5-1 that, when it was United's usual formation, was often attributed to a Portuguese, Carlos Queiroz. Wayne Rooney suffered, seemingly hamstrung by his deployment on the wing. United's sole threat came from the opposite flank and the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo.

Benfica responded by crowding the midfield themselves and leaving Fabrizio Miccoli stranded alone in attack. Stalemate ensued, only broken by an exceptional strike

Simao played a one-two with Nuno Gomes that resulted in the Benfica captain cutting in to the penalty area. As United retreated, he cleverly played his pass back to Nelson for the right back to power an unstoppable drive into the top corner of Edwin van der Sar's net.

Then, out of necessity but in some style, United stirred. 'I think we can thank Mr Nelson for the goal,' said Ferguson. 'It wakened us up, it wakened our players, it wakened the crowd and you saw the real Manchester United.'

Rooney was restored to the attack - 'that made a difference', according to Ferguson - and wave after wave of attack followed, all constructed with a combination of urgency and inspiration. Ronaldo, inevitably, was to the fore, and greater use of the wings brought set pieces and a chance to make their greater height count.

But it was symptomatic of United's recovery that they levelled by attacking the ball, Vidic proving the most positive player in the penalty box when Giggs flighted in a freekick. They could have already equalised, Saha being denied by a combination of goalkeeper Quim and goalscorer Nelson after Vidic had flicked on Giggs' corner.

Having posed problems with his set-piece delivery, the Welshman ensured victory in altogether different circumstances, stealing in unnoticed to meet Ronaldo's right-wing cross with a header than left Quim with no chance.

Ferguson added: 'Ryan's hitting form again. I thought his performance tonight was superb.'

A third header brought a third goal. Darren Fletcher was introduced to replace Giggs and his first contribution was the out-swinging corner Saha met emphatically.

'In the second half, United were too strong for Benfica,' admitted their manager Fernando Santos. 'The goal they scored at the end of the first half changed the game.'

Ferguson felt the match was altered by playing 'with patience and speed. When we made the passes quicker, the movement quicker we improved our game but we still need patience to pick a pass, patience to switch the game.'

As he had said before the game, it is atypical for United to progress the easy way. 'We always seem to torture ourselves,' sighed the Scot. It is becoming something of a tradition.

A tradition that, rightly, United make much of, is their commitment to attack. After a statement of negative intent, they were given more reasons to carry on attacking, and more Champions League matches in which to do so.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs
His involvement in the two decisive goals would be reason enough, but this was a match that showed Giggs' intelligence and versatility. Deployed as the most offensive of three central midfielders, he showed himself equally capable of exerting an influence there as on the left flank.

RONALDO WATCH: No sooner was his controversial World Cup fading from the memory than Ronaldo embroiled himself in more controversy at the Riverside on Saturday. As a former Sporting Lisbon player, there was an inevitability about him being singled out by Benfica fans, even had he not made a one-fingered gesture in their direction last year. But, ever the shy, retiring type, he was excellent throughout, a blur of step-overs and direct running, even when his team-mates were struggling. And while Ronaldo has been branded a diver, not least by Middlesbrough, it was Wayne Rooney who was cautioned for dissent.

MAN UTD VERDICT: They were outstanding in attack for the final half-hour but struggle to play at anything other than full intensity, as Copenhagen and Celtic showed.

BENFICA VERDICT: The clever, technically adept attacking trident of Nuno Gomes, Fabrizio Miccoli and Simao should make them a threat in the UEFA Cup. A dominant centre-half would help, however, especially if they encounter English opposition.


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