Sir Alex Ferguson has been glowing in his praise of the prodigiously talented striker they have come to call L'Etoile Benzema in these parts. But Karim Benzema provided the Manchester United manager with a genuine fright here last night with a sublime left-foot shot which left his side three minutes away from victory before the visitors, as they so often do, somehow found an equaliser at the death.
Lyons had showed great ambition and created a number of chances before Benzema received a short pass from Jeremy Toulalan early in the second half. The 20-year-old deceived a cluster of defenders with his first touch before despatching his blistering shot, with minimal backlift, in off the post.
The goal, struck in a way that Wayne Rooney delivers a shot, inspired the home side and ignited a stadium where Cristiano Ronaldo – who seemed to have the beam from a laser pen shone in his face by a Lyons fan despite United voicing concerns to Uefa officials about such a problem during the warm-up – was on the receiving end of a partisan atmosphere.
When the equaliser came, United were looking increasingly desperate in the face of a highly organised defence. Jean-Alain Boumsong, not best remembered for heroics during his spell with Newcastle, threw himself into a block as Rooney shaped to shoot, Gregory Coupet in the Lyons goal touched over a looping Ronaldo cross and when Rooney did finally net, he was fractionally offside.
But just when it seemed that United's Champions League ambitions might be dented, Carlos Tevez pounced from three yards with a volley which changes the complexion of the tie and left Alain Perrin, the Lyons manager, looking a depressed man. "As things stand, we're out," he said.
Ferguson, whose strategy of deploying Rooney alone up front worked nothing like the way it did four days earlier against Arsenal, was "delighted" with the draw. "When you score so late on you are never sure you are going to get that kind of [result]," he said. "It gives us a good opportunity to qualify."
He played down Lyons' threat, pointing out that Edwin van der Sar in the United goal had hardly had a shot to save. "I don't think they had any clear chances," Ferguson said. But though substitutes Tevez and Nani had in the second half added some of the potency which seemed missing, Lyons' contribution seemed greater than he was willing to give them credit for.
Benzema had not featured too much at the start as the sides had equal possession and shots. But when he dropped back to receive François Clerc's accurate cross midway through the first half, it seemed Lyons might storm ahead. Instead, Benzema flashed a shot just over.
The left winger Hatem Ben Arfa, another player Ferguson rates, also ran through United's midfield just before the end and might have extended their lead with either of two shooting chances after arriving from the bench.
It was one of those nights when United did not quite click and Lyons, for whom Perrin was a man under fire after indifferent domestic displays, showed unexpected ambition.
Sidney Govou was a prominent threat in the first half. His cross from the left was headed clear by Nemanja Vidic before Rio Ferdinand did well to block a shot from him, Patrice Evra scramblingthe ball to safety. When Clerc crossed from the right on 20 minutes, Govou fluffed his shot and Ferdinand almost did the job for him by nearly slicing into his own net.
The mercurial Brazilian Juninho twice offered reminders of his ability from set-pieces, with a 40-yard effort being comfortably saved by Van der Sar.
United relied on the touch of Ryans Giggs for most of their openings. It was he, with the outside of his boot, who sent through Rooney to nutmeg Sébastian Squillaci only to see Coupet parry his effort from perhaps United's best chance before the goal.
Another exquisite Giggs pass sent in Paul Scholes but he screwed the ball wide after Boumsong also found himself nutmegged.
In the end, United drew level. Tevez slotted home from three yards when the ball was recycled from the right by Nani after a Michael Carrick shot had been blocked and cannoned into the winger's path.
It was hard on Lyons but as Ferguson pointed out, that is what makes his side such a force. "We are the best in those kind of situations and the players showed the great character we've got," he said. "The big difference with us this season is strength in depth."
The Lyons president, Jean-Michel Aulas, has said that he will not let Benzema leave Lyons until the club has won the Champions League. Improbable on both counts, but on current form the player who first kicked a ball in the tough suburb of Bron, two miles from this ground, will believe that anything is possible when Lyons arrive at Old Trafford next month.Reuse content