It was no surprise to see Jose Mourinho revert back to 4 at the back nor his decision to rest a number of players with the Chelsea game coming up on Sunday. The game 2 weeks ago was as easy as it gets in the Champions League so Mourinho would have been confident of sending out a side to get the result needed to advance to the knockout stage but this was a different Benfica to then and not quite the stroll in the park most would have anticipated.
Back to 4
The return to the back 4 however did not improve the performance or attacking threat from Saturday. Opting to play Juan Mata on the right provides the space down for the fullback to attack as he likes to drift inside, which normally allows a rampaging Antonio Valencia to give United a real attacking threat. But Matteo Darmian replaced Valencia last night and his attacking intent is minimal. On the other side Daley Blind is hardly an attacking option either and then add the defensive minded Nemanja Matic and Scott Mctominay, it was no real surprise that it was to be another limited attacking display.
Luckily for United they had Anthony Martial in full flow and he brought the first real excitement of the game with some skillful attacking runs at the Benfica right back. On 15 minutes he was once again in full flow, getting into the box and this time winning a penalty. It was unclear the exact reason, but potentially hand ball from the falling Douglas although it looked altogether clumsy so could have easily been given for a foul. Martial picked himself up to continue penalty duty, only for the young Benfica keeper, Mile Svilar, to guess the right way and save a poorly placed penalty. In truth, a goal would have been harsh against Benfica who started a lot brighter than in Portugal.
Benfica much improved
The penalty save seemed to spring them further into life and only a few minutes later, David De Gea had to be at his best to stop a brilliant curling effort from Diogo Goncalves. For large parts of the first half Benfica looked comfortable and the game had no real openings to note, until the last minute of the half when Romelu Lukaku picked out Matic just outside the area, with time for the Serb to set himself and get away a powerful low drive that Svilar couldn’t get a hand on, only to see the shot cannon back off the post, onto Svilar’s back and into the back of the net. It was an unfortunate moment for the keeper who in the home leg made the error to gift United the only goal of the game. He must have thought he was jinxed. United probably didn’t deserve the lead. There was still time for another decent United chance before the break, as Lukaku was put through one on one with his young countryman, only to be denied with what was a weak effort.
Lucky to be ahead
Mourinho would have been delighted to be ahead at half time, as his side once again failed to produce any real excitement for the home support. Martial was the standout performer and only real attacking threat for the half. Jesse Lingard, playing in the number 10 position, failed to get into the game and was forced off at the break with an injury. Henrikh Mkhitaryan replaced him and United started brighter, but were still very sloppy with their play. No more so than Lukaku who had a nightmare evening, with a poor first touch, constant failure to hold the ball up and no real impact on the game other than the odd glimpse of his power and pace. You could sense the crowds frustration with every bad touch or pass, but to be fair it wasn’t just the big Belgian who was way off his best.
Benfica continued to have good periods, Goncalves once again forcing De Gea into a quality save to keep United in front on the hour. United did not take the warning seriously as 5 minutes later arrived best chance of the half, which came from more casual play from United. Eric Bailly was really sloppy in possession and a hugely under hit pass to Chris Smalling was easily cut out by Raul Jimenez, putting him clean through. Bailly owes a lot to Smalling’s power of recovery, Jimenez’s lack of instinct and mainly the Old Trafford upright, as a poke towards goal came back off the post via a tiny deflection off Smalling’s toe.
It was a huge let off and one that seemed to prompt a change of formation from Mourinho. The disappointing Mata was replaced by Ander Herrera who sat in more of a 3 with Matic and Mctominay with Mkhitaryan shifting out to the wide right. The balance of the side looked much better, with Mctominay and Herrera making good forward runs and Mkhitaryan looking more dangerous with more space out wide. With 15 minutes remaining, we saw the best player on the pitch, Martial, replaced by the now 20 year old, Marcus Rashford on his birthday. The second half was less fruitful for Martial, but still he offered United’s only real threat with some further skillful bursts at the Benfica fullbacks.
Fortunately for United, Rashford was just as direct as Martial, and only a few minutes later, just like the Frenchman did first half, Rashford attacked at pace, got into the box and was cynically brought down by Samaris. It was a clear penalty, although you wouldn’t have thought it from the Benfica reactions, but it was a great chance for the game to be put to bed. Lukaku initially took the ball in Martial’s absence, only to then be overruled by Herrera, who was then overruled by Blind. It was a bizarre turn of events, but little did it matter as Blind smashed home down the middle. It would have been a welcome boost for Lukaku if he had taken it and scored, but on the flip side, had he missed it could have really knocked, what already looks like fragile confidence.
The last 10 minutes was played out with no other moments to get the crowd on their feet, so United strolled to another home win, another home clean sheet and 1 point away from qualification as group winners. The performance was not great once more, but with one eye on Chelsea, it was job done. Bigger challenges lie ahead in all competitions but United will have to up their game significantly if they have any desire to challenge for trophies.