Manchester United returned to the scene of the crime, and this time they made off with the spoils. Back to face Benfica in Estadio da Luz, where last season's Champions' League campaign ended so abjectly, they maintained their 100 per cent start in Group F last night by virtue of Louis Saha's fifth goal this season.
The former Fulham striker's brutal angled shot, after a classic counter-attack two-thirds of the way through an uncompromising encounter, not only avenged December's fatal 2-1 defeat in Lisbon but also gave United an away win in the competition proper for the first time in nine attempts. The match-winner at Panathinaikos back in November 2003 was Diego Forlan, who has long since departed England, which tells its own story.
United could have made last night's scoreline more emphatic, yet both Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick had point-blank shots saved by Quim three minutes from time after the goalkeeper had parried a free-kick by Gabriel Heinze.
For all United's ascendancy in the later stages, Saha's moment of inspiration was out of character with much of an attritional affair. Not that Sir Alex Ferguson will quibble. They now have back-to-back matches with FC Copenhagen, which should take them into the final two games unbeaten, perhaps even with four wins.
The United manager was quick to praise Saha, who had been pressed into service with a tight hamstring and foraged bravely, if often alone. Wayne Rooney put in another strangely muted display which found him at left-back more often than in the faces of the Benfica back-line.
However, the United manager reserved his most glowing tributes for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese winger was vilified by Benfica fans for his Sporting Lisbon background from start to finish, just as in the previous meeting. On that occasion he raised the "finger" to them and earned himself a fine and a one-match ban. This time, far from being provoked, Ronaldo was braveness and bravura personified, with a healthy dollop of turn-the-other-cheek maturity for good measure. As the vitriol rained down from the stands, in the form of whistling and booing, he frequently dribbled the ball in among the lunging boots of Benfica. All too often he was the only player on either side to demonstrate the sport's finer arts.
"Ronaldo has been fantastic all season," Ferguson said. "The boy has had to endure a lot of public criticism and has risen above it with great courage. Next time Portugal play those people will be kissing his feet."
Ferguson tried hard to keep United's success in perspective. "Today is not a killer blow for Benfica as it was for us last year," he said. "Looking at the group, Copenhagen and Benfica need to win games quickly. Benfica will have to play an open game at Old Trafford. They also have to play Celtic twice, and who knows what will happen there."
United's determination to atone for last season's failure was manifested in heavy challenges early on, with Carrick and Paul Scholes cautioned inside 10 minutes. It also saw Ferguson waving everyone bar Saha behind the ball at times, forcing Benfica to shoot from far.
Georgios Karagounis and Nuno Gomes tested Edwin van der Sar during the first half. Ronaldo, inevitably, had United's best effort, forcing Quim into a scrambled save from 25 yards, with Saha thwarted as he tried to turn in the loose ball.
The United strategy up to half-time might politely have been described as one of playing on the break. They showed little inclination to press forward in numbers, while Benfica, in the absence of the injured Rui Costa, lacked the guile to breach a defence in which the centre-backs, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, were imperious.
On the hour, however, United clinched the points with a stunning goal. The ball was cleared from the back to Ronaldo, lurking midway inside the home half of the pitch. He drove forward before helping it on to Saha, who cut in from the right, and dispatched a ferocious left-footed shot that deflected off the toe of a defender high into the far corner of Quim's net.
Suddenly, what seemed a tentative, almost anxious approach by United took on the aura of composed resilience as they repeatedly soaked up Benfica's attacks and countered at pace. Van der Sar had become a spectator and even before Quim's late heroics, Saha had come close to making it 2-0 when he swept the ball the wrong side of the near post from Carrick's cross.
By the end, the fire of the Benfica faithful, whipped up by the traditional release of the club eagle to circle high above the ground before kick-off before returning to its trainer, had been all but doused by Saha's opportunism.
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Quim; Alcides, Luisao, Anderson (Mantorras, 82) Leo; Katsouranis, Petit; Paulo Jorge (Miccoli, 65), Karagounis (Nuno Assis, 63), Simao; Nuno Gomes. Substitutes not used: Moretto (gk), Beto, Nelson, Ricardo Rocha.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Ronaldo, Carrick, O'Shea, Scholes; Saha (Smith, 85), Rooney (Fletcher, 85). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Evra, Brown, Solskjaer, Richardson.
Referee: F de Bleeckere (Belgium).
* Real Madrid reignited their Champions' League campaign with a 5-1 Group E drubbing of Dynamo Kiev at the Bernabeu last night. First-half goals from Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul and Jose Antonio Reyes put Real firmly in the driving seat. Raul made it 4-1 with his 53rd Champions' League goal just after the hour, Van Nistelrooy capping an easy night with a penalty after he was fouled by goalkeeper Olexander Shovkovsky, who received a red card.Reuse content