Misfiring United's hopes in balance
At his most avuncular, Sir Alex Ferguson tends to chuckle and reflect affectionately on Manchester United's capacity to make life difficult for themselves. But it is not always such an endearing trait and while Ferguson retreated into a position of familiar defiance, his side have manoeuvred themselves into an uncharacteristically awkward situation.
They are making a mess of what seemed a straightforward group. Assumptions of easy progress have been challenged by United's complacency and carelessness on the continent. If there is no disgrace in drawing twice with an accomplished Benfica side, an inability to beat Basel has proved a more basic failing.
While a point in Switzerland will send them through, second place runs the risk of a last-16 encounter with Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, probably Europe's three outstanding sides. "It makes it a bit harder but if you look at it a different way maybe a bigger game will suit us better anyway," said Ferguson, attempting to pluck a positive from frustration.
"First place in the group can be important to avoid teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona," argued Jorge Jesus, the Benfica manager. If you are second, Bill Shankly once said, you are nothing. This year's Champions League could bear that out.
Even United's glorious tradition of escapology provides less solace when they are reliant upon the mediocrities of Otelul Galati for assistance on matchday six. "I don't think Benfica will lose to Galati," the United manager said. Nor, realistically, do too many others.
It is now advantage Benfica, Pablo Aimar's stabbed leveller adding a modern twist to the nostalgic feel of the fixture. When this was a meeting of Best and the best, the Portuguese were no underdogs. Now they can seem a deluxe feeder club for Real Madrid and Chelsea, but Jesus' classy collective are making light of past losses. United, shorn of the injured Wayne Rooney and the suspended Nemanja Vidic, found it harder to compensate.
In Nicolas Gaitan, the successor to Angel di Maria - Benfica run a profitable import business involving Argentine wingers - they had a man with chutzpah to show off his juggling skills on the Old Trafford turf, in Axel Witsel the latest opponent to illustrate that central midfield remains United's weakest department, in Artur a goalkeeper who thwarted Ashley Young and Fabio when each was played through on goal.
"I think we did well," Ferguson insisted. "We didn't deserve what happened tonight." Yet United's self-destructive tendencies resurfaced. Five successive clean sheets had followed their demolition derby yet it was symbolic that the first player since Edin Dzeko to find the United net was one of their own. After four weeks of frugality, there was a renewed air of panic at the back.
Both Benfica goals were all too avoidable. Phil Jones' fearless surges forward are yet to yield a strike for Blackburn, United or England, but he has struck for Benfica, albeit accidentally. "Unfortunate," added Ferguson. "It has cannoned off young Phil." His outstretched left foot deflected Gaitan's cross beyond David de Gea.
United's other expensive ingénue was culpable for the second. De Gea's poor clearance was intercepted by a marauding Bruno Cesar, whose cross struck Rio Ferdinand. Aimar was on hand to turn it over the line. "A bad kick," accepted Ferguson.
It was all the more costly as their lead only lasted 80 seconds. Making the sort of dynamic break into the box that United's central midfielders have supplied too rarely, Darren Fletcher burst on to Patrice Evra's cross. Artur half-stopped the Scot's shot but Fletcher's momentum took him past the goalkeeper to poke the rebound in.
Their equaliser had come on the half-hour. The pattern of Portuguese excellence continued as a graduate from the green-and-white half of Lisbon, Nani, jinked and crossed. Dimitar Berbatov headed in his first European goal since 2008.
"He's played very well tonight and we know there's always a goal in Dimitar," Ferguson said. There were three on this occasion, though two were chalked off, one wrongly, according to the 69-year-old.
United's greatest ever player, George Best, reached his twin peaks against Benfica; for their costliest, the season reached a new height against the same opposition. That is saying precious little, however: Berbatov's only previous goal was against Aldershot and, apart from surreal saunter at centre-back in the closing minutes against Leeds, his campaign had been forgettable.
His Champions League career has been little better. Even when the three-year drought ended, a reputation as a scorer of important goals eluded him. There was a chance to provide the winner, but Fabio's cross was volleyed over the bar. Berbatov's earlier good work was undone, United's challenge looking a little unhinged.
Ferguson's praise notwithstanding, this was the man he omitted from the 18 for May's Champions League final. Restored to the team, redemption eluded the Bulgarian. At least he could suffer in private in the bowels of Wembley.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Axel Witsel - There is something about Belgian midfielders and Afros. The only man to model his look on Marouane Fellaini caught the eye, but largely for a powerful performance that put his side on top in the midfield.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: In one sense, Ferguson was right: his side did have more chances. Yet this rarely felt like a game when United would deliver another dramatic winner. The manager delayed in introducing Javier Hernandez which, while Young had some promising moments as a support striker, appeared strange and, in Rooney's absence, United displayed a lack of intensity. As in the defensive horror show against Basel, Jones and Ferdinand were paired in the middle of the defence, suggesting each fares better alongside Vidic. Michael Carrick, meanwhile, will miss the Basel game after being booked, suspended for what may be the only three tackles he has attempted this season.
BENFICA VERDICT: They remain unbeaten in all competitions this season and could have won this one, Rodrigo Moreno shooting just wide with a minute to go. Jesus' disciples even coped with the loss of the injured Luisao while, after levelling, the manager made defensive changes to safeguard their position.