United travelled to Lisbon off the back of a disappointing/hard-earned (delete as appropriate) draw away at Anfield. Benfica had lost their opening two fixtures, while United had won both of theirs. A victory would almost certainly seal qualification from the group and United got what they needed, thanks to a clever free kick from Marcus Rashford.
United named close to a full-strength starting eleven. Lindelof (making a return to the club United bought him from) and Blind came in for Jones and Darmian. Mata and Rashford were also restored to the side for Young and Martial. This was a much more attacking eleven than the one that started against Liverpool. Benfica were lined up in a 4-3-3, with veteran defender Luisao at the centre of defence and Mile Svilar in goal. It was the 18-year-old keepers first ever Champions League start.
The game started slowly, with Benfica sat deep, happy to play a counter-attacking game. United struggled to string passes together and rarely made it into Benfica’s final third. In fact, Benfica started the game having a few corners, that ultimately didn’t trouble the United defence, but kept them pinned back. Benfica’s first real chance came when Grimaldo ran down the Red’s left, waltzing around the defence. He played a low cross in across the box, only for Salvio to blaze wide. He had a teammate running in behind; had he dummied rather than shooting, United could have been a goal down.
The Red Devils failed to grow into the game. For the whole of the first half, their play was disjointed. Too many short passes missing their targets, poor running off the ball and players were continually caught offside. Their haplessness was laid bare when Benfica broke down the left again and Valencia and Mata collided, taking Valencia out of the game. Lindelof managed to block the cross into the hands of De Gea.
United had their first chances around the half-hour mark. Rashford had a looping header sail over the bar. Soon after, Matic managed to race into the Benfica box and hammer a shot from a tight angle, the keeper palming it away. By this time the Reds were keeping the ball more, but their final ball was still very poor. They finally managed a looped ball over the top that set Mkhitaryan free on the right just before halftime. After running unchallenged from roughly the halfway line, he hit a poor shot over the bar.
Unlike the Liverpool game, Mourinho can’t be blamed for the poor first-half display. Tactically, the Reds were set up to be solid but they were definitely not defensive. Their abject start down to individual performances, probably best evidenced by the immediate improvement in their play after halftime. United came out with real urgency, already passing much crisper, Herrera and Rashford having shots from outside the box early on. Someone clearly had a word at halftime.
Rashford was much brighter in the second half. Finally realising that Benfica had been playing a high line, he pulled their right back more central and tried to run in behind. He also took a flurry of corners around the hour mark, effectively shooting direct from each one. Mourinho had obviously identified that Svilar would struggle if the ball was fizzed in at him. The young Belgian was even forced to flick the ball off his own bar when one ball was ominously close to going in.
The next time Rashford delivered in a whipped ball, it did cross the line. United won a free kick about 35 yards out close to the left touchline. Benfica held their line on the edge of the box, the attackers waiting for a dipping cross in. But the teenager whipped in a looping shot at goal. Svilar had been stood on the six-yard line, ready to catch the seemingly inevitable cross. Taken by surprise, he rushed back, claiming the ball and holding it out in front of him like a cartoon bomb. But he had already stepped back too far over his own line. The ref pointed at his watch; the goal-line technology had confirmed the goal.
The only bad news to come out of the game was a Rashford injury, the teenager going down complaining about his calf or hamstring. One can only hope that it is not as bad as it looked. United already have a long injury list, they can’t really afford to add another player to it, never mind one of their top performers. They are lucky they are blessed with a lot of players in attacking positions, although not many of them share the class of Rashford.
This was another game where Lukaku and Mkhitaryan were quiet. Lukaku is a player who rarely gets involved in the build-up play, preferring to find space that will enable him to score. Unfortunately, when United aren’t creating multiple chances he tends to drift out of the game. He attempted to drop deeper to get involved later on, but this seems to be at odds with his skillset. Of course, it would help if the main creative midfielder was able to…create. Mkhitaryan hasn’t laid on an assist in a month and his ineffectiveness is becoming a worrying trend. Maybe it’s time to try someone else?
Minutes after replacing Rashford, Martial flicked the ball past Douglas then drilled a low shot at the keeper from an acute angle. This proved to be United’s last attempt. In the last ten minutes, United created nothing, happy to see the game out. Benfica had their own chance late on, Ruben Dias volleying over from a corner. It was quite concerning to see him unmarked, but the shot was completely harmless.
In the dying embers of the game, Luisao was sent off for a late challenge on McTominay (who had come on with a few minutes to go). It was his second bookable offence. This was unfortunate for the Brazilian, he and the rest of the Benfica team had defended really well, never letting United have a truly clear-cut chance. Equally, United’s defence had kept the Eagles quiet; De Gea didn’t have to make a save.
This game could be summed up in one sentence: poor game, good result. United needed a win and they got one. They are still top of the group and a win in the return fixture will see them through. If they play like they did in the first half they won’t win any games in the knockout stage but we know they are capable of better performances. Let’s just hope Rashford was faking his injury.