This was always going to be a close encounter, with Benfica undefeated domestically and on a run of seven consecutive home wins in Europe. Manchester United have also been on fearsome form, scoring 16 goals in 3 matches. This therefore had potential to be a case of irresistible force against unmoveable object.
The home side lined up resembling a 4-1-2-3, with two attacking midfielders – Gaitan and Ruben Amorim – playing wide roles, and Javi Garcia occupying a holding role behind central midfielders Axel Witsel and Aimar. United by contrast had two deeper-lying central midfielders in Carrick and Fletcher, with Giggs linking play ahead of them. Park Ji-Sung played a left-sided midfield role, while Valencia played down the right in his usual industrious winger role. Of front men, the powerful Cardozo occupied the target-man role for the hosts, while at the other end, Rooney could be said to be operating in a ‘false nine’ role, as a lone forward who would frequently drop deep to collect the ball in midfield.
United’s midfield not so Clever(-ley)
The injury to Tom Cleverley on Saturday meant a return to the first eleven for Carrick – who had only featured off the bench so far this season – alongside Fletcher who has only featured for Scotland competitively since the summer. The slightly rusty presence of these two more defensive midfielders lent a certain immobility to the United middle that was exploited by aggressive Benfica hustling. Their pressing forced Carrick and Fletcher into too many direct passes to Rooney, who was competently negated aerially by Benfica captain Luisao. On top of this, Valencia, as the only recognised winger on the pitch, was generally well-matched by Emerson, and Fabio was unable to offer effective support very often for fear of leaving Gaitan available for a counter attack. As a result, Manchester United dominated possession, yet created few chances, sitting at 62% after 36′. By this time, they were already 1-0 down with less shots on goal. A counter-attack saw Gaitan’s exquisite outside-of-the-foot cross magnificently chested down and steered past a wrong-footed Evans by Cardozo, who curled the ball beyond Lindegaard’s outstretched hand and just inside the post on 24′. As Benfica smelled blood and United looked rattled, the home side pressed further up the pitch, meaning that Lindegaard (along with Carrick and Fletcher) was frequently forced to punt the ball long, at which point Luisao continued to give Rooney no change whatsoever.
The big captain rarely put a foot wrong all evening. He had the beating of Rooney in the air and on the ground, stepping in to intercept or challenge with apparent ease. When Rooney dropped deep to collect, he too often found scant options for passes, and a bank of three Benfica midfielders retreating to recover possession. Park would periodically drift in from the left, often allowing Giggs to push wide in response but in general the movements were well tracked, with the exception of two Giggs attempts on goal.
The one significant split-second of indecision Luisao showed was during the Giggs equaliser on 42′. As the left-sided Giggs cut in from the right channel, Rooney made an adjacent run that gave Luisao pause for thought for a moment. With Garay tracking the diagonal run into the left channel by Park, and Maxi Pereira hesitating in the D, temporarily neglecting to close down Giggs, by the time Luisao realised that Giggs was the primary threat and that Rooney was offside, Giggs was in the process of arrowing a sweetly-struck ball into the top right-corner. Beyond this moment the Benfica captain did an admirable job as defensive stopper, with Garay practically acting as a sweeper. By contrast Smalling handled Cardozo well, but Evans struggled with his physicality at times.
Full backs kept busy
There were interesting clashes down both flanks, Fabio-Valencia versus Gaitan-Emerson, and Evra-Park versus Amorim-Pereira. Park and Amorim’s movement gave their opposite numbers some headaches. Park allowed Giggs to either go wide or press forward, meaning Maxi had to be wary of movement and getting caught in advanced positions. Similarly utility-player Amorim was happy to drop into central midfield, allowing playmaker Aimar to push forward into the hole. After 55′, the right-footed Nolito came on as an inverted left winger, with Gaitan switching to the right flank. Now Fabio’s attacking sensibilities left United slightly exposed to counter-attacks down the left, presumably leading to his replacement by Phil Jones in the later stages. Nolito was lively and liked to drive at the United defence, while Gaitan and Pereira proved an increasing handful for Evra. By this stage, Fletcher had been hooked for Javier Hernandez, and Valencia for Nani; Rooney dropped deeper into midfield, United then approximating a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. Hernandez however got very little joy out of the outstanding Luisao.
With Aimar being replaced by the burly Matic, Benfica now had a formidable and physical midfield three. The understated and fairly flawless Javi Garcia tracked Rooney well, and so most of the late attacking play was Benfica’s, coming down the flanks. Their two most significant attempts were from Gaitan cutting in from the right, to produce a camera-friendly save from Lindegaard, and Nolito somehow wriggling through a scrum of United defenders only to scuff his shot into the side-netting under pressure from a sliding Evans. The draw was probably just about the fair result, but Benfica impressed; although they will have to do so at Old Trafford too, after dropping points at home in a game where they made more chances.
Conclusion: United control possession early, but gradually forced back by aggressive wingers and dominance of Benfica’s defensive stopper. Ferguson will take a point away from home, as Liverpool and Everton have lost at the Stadium of Light in the past, but will hope that the shock of going behind has dusted off some mental cobwebs.
Fun Fact: Although it could be suggested that he was slightly lax for Cardozo’s goal, Johnny Evans completed a remarkable 98% of passes this evening (courtesy of OptaJoe).
Fun Fact 2: United’s 4 shots on goal was their joint fewest in 6 years, along with the 2011 CL final against Barcelona. (courtesy of OptaJoao).