The cold, hard truth of it is that Manchester United now face the prospect of playing the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid in the first knockout round of the Champions League come February and it is a mess entirely of their own making.
Last night they blundered into a situation where Benfica are now qualified and only a scenario in which United win and the Portuguese side do not take three points in the last round of matches on 7 December will see Sir Alex Ferguson's team go through top of Group C. It is an unlikely train of events given that Benfica will play the team last in the group, Otelul Galati, who are still without a point, and is why the United manager was already putting a brave face on it last night.
In order to finish second, United will only have to draw with Basle in Switzerland but second place means facing one of the group winners in the seeded draw for the next round. Ferguson claimed last night that playing Real, Internazionale and Bayern Munich – all group winners already, with Barcelona likely to join them tonight – in February was no different to United playing them in the semi-finals or final, although others might take more convincing.
Ferguson said: "The opportunities to play Inter, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. You have to judge that this way: if you played them in the semi-final or the final, you would be only too delighted, knowing the possibility is to win the trophy. The clubs we will face will know that too."
As the manager of a club that has reached three of the last four Champions League finals he is entitled to speak with some confidence, but the problem for United at the moment is that they are not playing like a side with that kind of record. There were three goals shipped at home to Basle and then two more last night which has put them in trouble when there was no obvious danger. Whatever attacking storm they brew up at one end, the back door creaks at the other.
Last night United were without Wayne Rooney who, Ferguson intimated later, is not guaranteed to be fit for the game against Newcastle United on Saturday. Dimitar Berbatov scored his first goal in the Champions League in more than three years but presented with the chance by Fabio da Silva to win the game in the 78th minute he volleyed carelessly over the bar.
It was in defence, however, that United were at their worst. Phil Jones' own goal within four minutes was unfortunate but it was symptomatic of a back four that were never in control of their brief. The equaliser that brought the game back to 2-2 came just 80 seconds after United had taken the lead and featured a bad clearance from goalkeeper David de Gea and then Rio Ferdinand's failure to get the resulting cross away.
The United defender later described both Benfica's goals as "spawny" via his Twitter account and there was an element of that. United had 64 per cent of the possession and completed more than double the amount of passes than the away side managed, yet in the first half hour especially Benfica were the better team. It ended up a wonderful game to watch, although not the kind of game United wanted it to be.
What went unmentioned last night was that the very worst scenario in Switzerland next month is that United lose and fail to qualify for the knockout stages altogether. It is unlikely and last happened in 2005 when Ferguson's team were in a period of painful transition, including the abrupt departure of Roy Keane. Given their recent record in the competition it remains a distant, albeit foreboding prospect.
As for Benfica, unbeaten in all competitions this season, they worked hard for their draw. Yes, they rode their luck at times but they put United under immediate pressure which paid off. Within four minutes Nicolas Gaitan's cross came off Patrice Evra on its way into the area which might have been why Jones misjudged his lunge forward to intercept. As it turned out, the teenager was not in control when he made the connection and the ball went in off his shin.
Life recently for the prodigal Jones has been one slap on the back after another. This was rather more difficult to take but he recovered to have a decent game. It took United considerably longer to do so. In those early stages, Axel Witsel, Pablo Aimar and Gaitan were excellent and United, under pressure in their midfield, struggled to get any rhythm together
When they did it was Nani's cross that made Berbatov's goal after Ashley Young and Evra had worked a free-kick on the left out to the winger. It was a beautifully-judged header by Berbatov across Artur, the Benfica goalkeeper, and into the far corner. The game suddenly opened up. Young ran at Artur and had his shot saved. Aimar went close at the other end.
Even before United took the lead just before the hour the match had gone up another level. A strong run into the heart of the Benfica defence by Jones set up Fabio da Silva for a chance but, panicking somewhat, he tried to chip Artur and failed. Just after the big Benfica captain Luisao pulled up with a problem to his thigh, United scored. Evra's cross was met by Darren Fletcher who put in the rebound after his first attempt was saved by Artur.
Ferguson lamented that his team had barely settled before they conceded. De Gea's clearance went straight to Bruno Cesar who surged down the left and crossed. Difficult though it was for Ferdinand to adjust to get the ball away, he managed only a block which fell for Aimar to score.
There were 10 minutes at the end of the game for Javier Hernandez as United laid a familiar siege to Benfica's goal. But it was the Portuguese who go through to the next round and United who face a difficult trip to Switzerland to finish the job.
Man of the match Aimar.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee C Cakir (Turkey).
Basle win keeps dreams alive
Basle showed they can be a threat to Manchester United in their final game in Group C when they beat Otelul Galati 3-2 in Romania. The Swiss side looked to have the game wrapped up in the first half, taking a 2-0 lead by the 14th minute through goals from Fabian Frei and Alexander Frei, Marco Streller then making it three eight minutes before half-time. Gabriel Giurgiu and Liviu Antal struck for Otelul in the last 15 minutes but Basle held on.