The Dutch striker has more spectacular goals among his collection of 38 in the Champions' League for Manchester United but it would be difficult to recall another that was quite so crucial in the course of his service at Old Trafford.
This was not quite the redemption that Ferguson would have been hoping for after defeat to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and the boos that accompanied it, but at times like these he will be forgiven for taking victory in any form. From Simão Sabrosa's inspired equaliser on 59 minutes the old doubts began to crowd in on a United team ravaged by injuries, uncertain in defence and desperate for a victory that would enable them to reassert their influence on a season threatening to unravel before it ever really began.
There was a goal on only his second start of the season for Ryan Giggs, and the drama of Van Nistelrooy's late intervention, but last night was significant for what it said about Ferguson's relationship with the great 66,112-strong jury of Old Trafford. This week he has refused to discuss the possibility that, in light of the booing, his relationship with the great following of the club he has rebuilt over 19 years may finally be altering: last night they took it upon themselves to tell him that it remains intact.
On 18 minutes they rose, more out of duty than euphoria, to demand of each other "Stand up if you love Fergie". They were watching a United team that had just one regular among its defence, a side missing eight injured senior players as well as the suspended Wayne Rooney and there was no denying that the performance was a cause for tension. Benfica had their chances to win, and were prevented at least four times by the agility of Edwin van der Sar, but among the many victorious skirmishes that make a season this one should prove more significant to United than many.
There were too many players missing, too many out of position to search for clues as to the future but there did at least seem a shift in the tactical thinking of Ferguson. The 4-5-1 formation that has been such a cause for grief at Old Trafford seemed to have been reconfigured to allow Paul Scholes a more flexible role behind Van Nistelrooy. Not that Ferguson himself would comment on a debate over the formation of United that seems to cut to the very heart of the club's future.
In one of his very worst post-match moods he announced that he was "not explaining anything" about a formation he claimed has not changed from the one that failed against Blackburn. "You have your own ideas on the game so carry on," he told reporters. "I'm not going to blunt your imagination."
Ferguson did heap praise upon Giggs who, restored to the side and back with the captain's armband on his sleeve, looked the most dangerous player of the first half. "I thought his experience would be important with so many experienced players out. I don't think Ji-Sung Park deserved to be left out but I believed that experience would count."
With Kieran Richardson at left-back, and Phil Bardsley making his first senior start at right-back, experience was in short supply. Rio Ferdinand was the only regular in the back four and, alongside him, John O'Shea did nothing to put Old Trafford at ease when, in a skittish start, he allowed a throughball from Nuno Gomes to slip under his foot that found Fabrizio Miccoli whose shot was well saved by Van der Sar. Van Nistelrooy had struck the crossbar with a volley before Cristiano Ronaldo was brought down on the right by Leo six minutes before half-time. Giggs negotiated possession of the deadball and struck a shot which clipped Sabrosa on the end of the wall and beat the goalkeeper Jose Moreira.
United should have extinguished any hope that Benfica might have had five minutes after the interval when Alan Smith worked the ball out left to Giggs and his cross dropped over Moreira but Van Nistelrooy could not react quickly enough. Sabrosa's equalising free-kick was curled masterfully out of the reach of Van der Sar earned after a clumsy challenge by Smith on Miccoli on the edge of the area.
It looked like United's chances had expired until, on 85 minutes, Giggs' corner was headed down by Ferdinand and Van Nistelrooy intervened to secure a precious win.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Bardsley, Ferdinand, O'Shea, Richardson; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Smith, Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Park, Miller, Pique, Ebanks-Blake, Rossi, Martin.
Benfica (4-4-2): Moreira; Nelson, Luisao, Rocha, Leo; Beto (Mantorras, 87), Petit, Fernandes (Dos Santos, 87), Sabrosa; Miccoli (Pereira, 81), Nuno Gomes. Substitutes not used: Quim (gk), Anderson, Geovanni, Karyaka.
Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).
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