More historical resonance looms for Manchester United in a Champions League campaign which is already laden with it. United fans need no reminding that it was in the club's first European Cup-winning campaign that George Best scored more goals in a season than any winger for the side – 32 – and Cristiano Ronaldo, now two away from that target, may well have broken the record by the time United play their quarter-final tie.
Now all United need is some intensity befitting a year which Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted, with the Munich anniversary in mind, carries an ominous weight of responsibility for him. Ronaldo said it all last night when, after a 41st-minute goal which took his tally this season to 30 in 30, he observed: "The performance was not the best but sometimes you play bad and get the result."
Indifferent probably best describes United's performance in a game they deservedly won but in which Karim Benzema, the thrilling French prodigy who looks a potential United player if ever there was one, provided much of the charisma on offer.
Though Ronaldo looked the most likely player to score, before a knock to his right foot after a challenge with Sidney Govou seemed to limit him early in the second half, it was Benzema who took the breath away. Few players attempt stepovers in the early stages of game when Nemanja Vidic stands in front of them, but such is the confidence of L'Etoile Benzema. The way he beat three men to supply Hatem Ben Arfa – who in the first half glittered alongside him, despite the reported differences between the two – and weighted a return pass which saw substitute Kader Keita run through and hit the post in the second suggests that Ferguson – for all his protestations to the contrary about inquiries so far – may be interested, come the summer.
Last night, the United manager was more interested in whether his own talisman can beat Best's record. "We've got 16 or 17 matches ahead, it's possible," he said of Ronaldo. Ferguson had also had worries about team selection, leaving Paul Scholes on the bench to recover from last Saturday's exertions at Fulham. The decision, about one of his "all-time favourite players," as he described him, was "a killer for me," he said and it certainly seemed to affect United's display. In Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Carrick there was the same, youthful-looking midfield that Ferguson had gambled on to such great effect in the demolition job on Arsenal last month and, although the test provided by Alain Perrin's side was greater than the one posed by Arsène Wenger's on that occasion, United certainly toiled to create clear chances.
The team selection, as Ferguson suggested in his programme notes, managed to "raise a few eyebrows" but United generally did not and when they did exploit the apparent weakness Lyons fans have been fretting about all season – Italian World Cup-winning left-back Fabio Grosso – the Brazilian central defender Cris stunted the threat with a commanding display.
Eventually, the defence was breached via the right channel after a rare slip-up at the back for Lyons. A crisp interchange between Wes Brown and Nani sent the full-back free to cross for Anderson, whose ball in towards Ronaldo and Rooney in the six-yard box got caught under François Clerc's feet. Ronaldo stole the ball from him, took it to the left of the keeper Grégory Coupet and netted from a narrow angle. "It wasn't the best goal, but it was a good one," Ferguson said.
Lyons' clear plan to hit United on the counter-attack by delivering the ball to Benzema was enough to maintain a jittery quality about United from start to finish. The challenge on him which earned Patrice Evra a third-minute booking immediately revealed United's awareness of the threat and the young striker held his head in his hands after Clerc, whom he sent down the right, failed to deliver the return ball past Carrick late on.
The Frenchman offered a curious foil for Wayne Rooney, for whom this was another subdued night. Ferguson has told him that he tries too hard and his frustrations grew as the game wore on. He fired straight at the keeper after Ben Arfa passed back straight into his path and the back-heel he attempted to put past Clerc after a one-two with Carlos Tevez had sent him clear summed things up.
Should United find Arsenal in their way on the journey they hope will take them to Moscow, it is unlikely Scholes and Owen Hargreaves will be on the sidelines but Ferguson is ready for English opposition, whoever that might be. "Liverpool have a good chance of going through and Chelsea should too, so there's probably a 40 per cent chance of meeting English opposition," he said. "It doesn't matter. They're all good teams."
Manchester United (4-3-3) Van der Sar; Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Brown; Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Tevez, 69); Ronaldo (Hargreaves, 90), Rooney, Nani. Substitutes not used: Kusczak (gk), Saha, Park, Scholes, O'Shea.
Lyons (4-1-2-2-1) Coupet; Clerc, Squillaci, Cris, Grosso; Toulalan; Juninho, Kallstrom (Fred, 78); Ben Arfa, Govou (Keita, 66); Benzema. Substitutes not used: Vercoutre (gk), Bodmer, Delgado, Mounier, Boumsong.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).Reuse content