James Lawton: Where once Best shone, United's flame burns out

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The Independent Football

It was a romantic presumption, maybe even a prayer, that someone like Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo or even the veteran Ryan Giggs would conjure a flash or two of the lightning which George Best brought down like a young god at the Estadio da Luz 39 years ago.

Rooney in the mode of 16 months or so ago in the same stadium, when he ravaged Croatia on behalf of England in the European Championship, would probably have done enough, but some things don't ever change at the top of football.

Inspired attack from time to time can carry you to the stars, as the teenage Best proved so unforgettably 39 years ago, but it should never be at the cost of taking your feet off the ground.

United had Best in some of the most sensational form of his life when they beat Benfica 5-1, but it is also true that had they had need of them, there was also a set of superb defenders on hand, centre-backs of the resilience and acumen of Nobby Stiles and Bill Foulkes and full-backs like Tony Dunne and Shay Brennan who never stopped running with a clear purpose. Nor was there any disposition to give the ball away easily, a rampant disease afflicting United in the first half last night after the early strike of Paul Scholes. In 1966 that was made so by the presence in midfield of such ball artists as Bobby Charlton and Paddy Crerand.

Last night such comparisons were as inevitable as they were painful, as United's life in the Champions' League was desperately imperilled, and then swept away.

The brutal fact was that United lapsed into a shambles of loose passing and poorly directed running the moment Giggs and Gary Neville and Scholes conspired after six minutes to give United the perfect incentive for a night of controlled performance and steely ambition. They had shown an early and impressive hand of authority and if the devastating onslaught of Best still resided on another football planet, there was suddenly so much to build on. It included the salvation of a season, the chance to join the European cruising set of Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. But control was lost for an agonising period and no one fell into the chaos more damagingly than the gifted but on this vital occasion far too erratic Ronaldo.

This was a night made for an eruption of the skills which flame into life too infrequently at the most telling of moments.

Best laid historic claim on this famous ground. Ronaldo could only thrash and churn in his frustration. Rooney tried, as he always does, but on this occasion perhaps at times a little too hard. Still, if United were chaotic when Geovanni and Beto scored almost inevitably in the sudden flow of Benfica possession, they did at least come out for the second half with a fighting resolve.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who had gambled so heavily on the offensive potential of an attack flanked by the skills and invention of Giggs and Ronaldo, made possibly one of his last stands in Europe. He withdrew the inconsequential Ronaldo and the frustrated Giggs and he sent on Louis Saha and Park Ji-Sung for a fight that was hugely encouraged by the news that Villarreal had forged ahead of Lille - a draw would be enough now, and there were times when it seemed just a stride away. But the Benfica passing did not crumble, as United's had in the first half, and you could only despair at the extent of this missed opportunity.

In the end United's spirit was not in question. The concern was their ability to maintain a performance at the highest level. The old certainties had slipped down another notch, and it was only that belief in Ferguson's capacity to rally his troops that brought such a hard edge to the closing minutes.

All that talk of doing it for George, doing it for the tradition of a great club, slid into irrelevance. It was a question simply of whether United still had the nerve and the technical ability to enforce their now desperate ambition.

They didn't, and as the last seconds wound away there was a supreme failure of judgement by Rio Ferdinand, who charged the Benfica goalkeeper and allowed the Portuguese to stall United's last charge. United had surrendered so much in this game and it was a few vital seconds that might have saved their humiliating fate.

United were fighting for more than a mere presence in Europe. They were seeking to re-establish an identity that 39 years ago was written in the sky. Here it was trodden into the turf that once glistened with their prowess. Ferguson's face said all you needed to know about the meaning of defeat. He now faces the harshest reality of all. United couldn't keep a foothold on the fringes of the European game they once illuminated. Now they are in desperate need of a torch of their own.