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Manchester United were forced to face Benfica at home without their talisman Wayne Rooney yesterday, so it was Dimitar Berbatov leading the line, as Nani and the-just-returned-from-injury Ashley Young partnered with the Bulgarian to provide offense in Tuesday's Champions League face off. At the back, it was Phil Jones pairing with Rio Ferdinand in Nemanja Vidic' absence, attempting to keep the Portuguese out of the net. Benfica entered the game unbeaten this season, with the current streak at 20 games entering the contest.
Jones figured prominently in early going, with his own goal gifting Benfica the lead -- definitely not the kind of welcome United were envisioning when the game plan was designed. Within five minutes, the English champs were down 1-0, the first goal the team had allowed in six games, on truly the first attack of the day from the visitors. Once again, it was the midfield that was exposed, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher unable to cover all of the Portuguese players who came flooding into the center of the pitch.
Benfica's obvious game plan was to hit the Reds hard and often, in an attempt to unsettle the home side and slow the game down, nullifying whatever movement or momentum the Reds had -- and it appeared to work, with the Reds seeming unusually jjittery at Old Trafford. Teams seem to be coming into the Theater of Dreams this season with a different mindset, a reminder that United appear more vulnerable -- especially mentally -- than they have in seasons past.
Nani gave Benfica the most trouble in the game's opening half hour, dribbling through the Portuguese side almost at will, but he was also responsible for repeatedly giving the ball away. Although United had significantly more of the possession at 60/40, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to create quality scoring chances, failing to test the Benfica 'keeper in the games first half hour.
It was that the 30 minute mark, though, that the game exploded into life. Berbatov glanced Nani's fine cross into the back of the net for a 1-1 scoreline. Before the crowd could settle down from celebrating the Bulgarian's second goal of the season, it was David De Gea bailing the Reds out with a super save -- the young Spanish 'keeper has really come into his own in the last two months, and proved it once again tonight. With the crowd still stunned from the near counter, Ashley Young was almost immediately put through on goal by Berbatov, with only the Benfica 'keeper to be beat; when he was unable to do so, though, the score line remained knotted at one.
Both sides then began to trade yellow cards, although to be fair, United's yellow -- issued to Darren Fletcher -- came from the referee being conned by a Portuguese player feigning an injury. Halftime arrived with Manchester United having the better of the possession and opportunities, and the momentum clearly swinging in their direction.
It was United continuing the pressure in the second half, as Berbatov and Carrick, two United players who split opinion more than any others among the fan base, took control of the offense. Although the offense suffered at times from the one-pass-too-many-syndrome, United were unfortunate not to add to their lead earlier than they did. Darren Fletcher finally did the deed, putting Benfica to the sword, and scoring off his own rebound after a perfect cross from Patrice Evra. Once again, though, even before the United fans could finish their full-throated celebration, Benfica had created another chance -- and capitalized. After enjoying a 2-1 lead for all of 80 seconds, United found themselves once again tied with Portuguese side, with the game as well as the group hanging in the balance.
The second goal completely took the wind out of United's sails, mirroring the air that Benfica took out of the ball in an effort to slow down the game. Even as the clock ticked past the 75th minute, though, Sir Alex stuck with the 11 that started the day's action, hoping to wrestle back control of the proceedings. Berbatov missed a sure-fire bet for a winner -- cue the boo birds once again -- the ball fresh off the foot of Fabio, before Sir Alex finally blinked and inserted Chicharito in place of Antonio Valenica. Strangely, Chris Smalling followed, replacing Fabio in the lineup.
In the end, it just wasn't enough time to change the game's outcome, as United found its paradise lost -- possibly along with a ticket to the knockout round of the competition. Benfica actually created the best of the late opportunities, slashing just wide of net, as the Reds' offensive funk continued.
A third draw in the group stages was not what the home crowd paid to see, but it's what they got. There's a pressure packed trip to Basel in store for United in two weeks' time -- and the focus will be more on qualifying than it will be on winning the group -- a strange position to be in, indeed, for a team that has played in three of the last four finals in this competition.
This is farlieonfootie for November 23.