Time for Rooney and a Benfica moment

Champions' League: The Belfast Boy was magically linked with the Portuguese. Now it's his successor's turn
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The Independent Online

Of all the purely footballing images of George Best that will live on in the memory and the television clips, two of the most enduring are against Benfica. So it is all the more appropriate that the Portuguese side should be Manchester United's opponents in their first European Cup game since his death, a game moreover that United must win to be sure of avoiding elimination before the competition has reached the knockout format of Best's heyday.

The Belfast Boy's "hey!" days did not come with any more emphatic an exclamation mark than United's ties in Lisbon in March 1966 and at Wembley two years and two months later. Could it then be an omen to be facing them again, albeit a Benfica even further removed than United from the two clubs' most glorious days?

Paddy Crerand, who had a better view than most of Best's performance in both those matches, was a hardened old pro who does not set too much store by such tricks of fate. That is why he was considerably less dismayed than some United team-mates when he accidentally smashed a mirror in the Stadium of Light dressing-room before the game 29 years ago.

"Aye, I broke a mirror kicking a ball about and the dressing-room went quiet as anything," he recalled last week. "I wasn't the least bit superstitious so it didn't bother me, but there were one or two that were, and thought it was a bad omen."

Already anxious about the prospect of having only a 3-2 lead from the thrilling first leg, United were put further on edge not just by the shards of glass but by a 10-minute delay to kick-off while Benfica's hero, the magnificent Eusebio, was presented with his European Player of the Year award.

It was during that period that Sir Matt Busby gave his famous instruction to the team: "Keep it tight for 20 minutes", whereupon, in Crerand's words, "George just went out there and went daft".

Best's first goal, after six minutes, was a header and his second, another six minutes in, was the oft-replayed black-and-white clip, latching on to David Herd's flicked header and racing through the home defence to finish with a fierce right-footed shot. Setting John Connelly up for a third in the 14th minute effectively settled the tie and earned the headline "El Beatle" as well as a worldwide reputation for Best.

"George had been absolutely brilliant in games before that, like the one we won 2-0 at Chelsea a couple of years earlier," Crerand says. "But in those days you rarely saw matches live on TV, so this one really made an impression. We were definitely the best team in Europe that year, and it was terribly disappointing to go out in the semi-final to Partizan Belgrade, who weren't a great side."

When a deflated Busby told Crerand "we'll never win it now", his fellow Scot replied: "We'll win the League next season and the European Cup the year after." Although made solely to alleviate the veteran manager's disappointment, it proved a remarkable prediction. The First Division title was secured after an unbeaten run of 20 matches, and with the carrot of Wembley as the venue for the final the following year, United found just enough to come through against Sarajevo, Gornik and Real Madrid, all by the odd goal.

"I'm not sure about the others, but I always felt there was no way we were ever going to lose the final," Crerand said of that May day in 1968. Not even when Eusebio went clean through with the score 1-1 just before the end of normal time? "Well, not until then." The moment passed, thanks to Alex Stepney's save and then, early in extra time, Best's twisting run round the Portuguese keeper, when he considered bending down to head the ball over the line but settled for a tap-in.

For Crerand, however, "the semi-final against Real was a much harder game, when we were 3-1 down at half-time in the second leg." And, controversially: "For me, our 1966 side was far stronger than two years later. We won it eventually, but only after Celtic [Crerand's former club] had become the first British winners, which was a feat in itself. You're never satisfied with one, are you?"

United had to be, until victory against the odds in 1999. Every year since, they have progressed beyond the group stages, but have only once looked capable of winning again, before unexpectedly losing to Bayer Leverkusen four seasons ago.

But as is desirable in his role as a pundit for MUTV, Crerand remains optimistic, both about the longer term and this Wednesday's return to Lisbon: "I still fancy United out there, I don't think it's over. The potential's tremendous with the set of players they've got. The problem they've had is that injuries have been horrendous.

"Wayne Rooney is a real Man United player. And I don't think he'll face the same temptations as George did, because he was the first and nobody understood the situation. Alex [Ferguson] understands it. If you go to see United, you expect one or two players to get you on the edge of your seat, and Wayne does that. Just like George did every time he picked the ball up."

Mission Europe: The Battle of Britain

TUESDAY: GROUP G - CHELSEA v LIVERPOOL

Jose Mourinho insists there is no great advantage in winning a group as opposed to finishing runners-up, but it would surely be better to meet, say, Schalke than Milan, or Udinese than Barcelona. Chelsea (10pts) should therefore go for a first victory in four Champions' League games with Liverpool (11pts). Do not expect many goals; the previous three meetings produced one (which may not have crossed the line).

TUESDAY: GROUP H - RANGERS v INTERNAZIONALE

Judgement day for Alex McLeish, the manager of Rangers (6pts), whose job prospects, perversely, may depend on another match altogether. He needs Artmedia Bratislava (5pts) to draw at home to Porto (4pts), as Rangers have a better head-to-head record against the Slovakian side, but not against the Portu-guese. Beating Inter (12pts), already assured of winning the group, would put them through whatever the other result, but it will be difficult.

Danger rival: Adriano

WEDNESDAY: GROUP B - ARSENAL v AJAX

Arsenal, with five wins out of five, and Ajax, also qualified, will be tempted to blood younger players (even younger ones, in the Dutch club's case). But apart from the financial bonus, it would be worth Arsène Wenger's team making an effort to become the first British club, and only the fifth overall, to complete the group stage with a 100 per cent record.

Danger rival: Charisteas

WEDNESDAY: GROUP D - BENFICA v MAN UTD

So it has come to this, in the Group of Draws. A laboured 2-1 win for United (6pts) over Benfica (5pts) at Old Trafford was the section's highest-scoring game, but failure to win any of their next three matches means they have to sum up the spirit of Best and go for a victory that would win the group if Villarreal (7pts) draw at home to Lille (6pts). Lille have the better head-to-head, so a draw would be perilous.

Danger rival: Simao Sabrosa

Steve Tongue

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