United, Benfica has a special vibration
Few European nights are quite as evocative as those spent in the company of Manchester United and Benfica. There’s a shared history and encounters between the great clubs have a special resonance.
Shortly after the death of George Best six years ago, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law spent a nostalgic morning at Manchester United’s old training ground The Cliff. “We communed with the ghosts of the past and, as you sometimes do on such occasions, we considered when our old team hit its highest level of performance. When did everything fit together most perfectly? When did we understand most completely what each of us was about? We agreed very quickly it was that night in Lisbon where we tore Benfica apart.”
Manchester United had won 5-1. The date was March 9, 1966. It was the second leg of their European Cup quarterfinal and it ranks as one of their finest performances ever, finer still than the more significant one they gave two years later when they inflicted another defeat on Benfica in the final at Wembley to bring the trophy Sir Matt Busby coveted most to England for the first time. It was triumph and deliverance; the realisation of a dream a decade after the nightmare of the Munich air crash when eight Manchester United players were tragically killed.
Putting the past to one side, Tuesday’s game has a narrative all of its own. With Manchester United and Benfica level on points, winning Group C is what’s primarily at stake here, though a close eye will have to be kept on Basel who can close the gap with a win away to Otelul Galati. “You do want to finish top,” Darren Fletcher said. “First and foremost you look to qualify for the knockout stages but we saw Arsenal finish second last season and end up with Barcelona in the first knockout round.”
Benfica's star: Attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan (L) will look to test Manchester United defenders at Old Trafford Tuesday night. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
That’s to be avoided, but doing so is easier said than done. Five years ago, Manchester United crashed out at the group stage for the first time since 1994 after they lost 2-1 to Benfica in Lisbon. Their visitors can’t be taken lightly. Benfica are unbeaten in 20 games in all competitions and will punish the lapses of concentration Manchester United showed against Basel when they needed a last minute header from Ashley Young to save them from defeat in a 3-3 draw.
The principal interest lies in how Manchester United will contain Nicolas Gaitan. The 23-year-old has laid on more assists than any other player in the Champions League this season, producing one in each of Benfica’s four games so far. Gaitan was the one who set up Oscar Cardozo to score when they held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw at the Estadio da Luz in mid-September, nicking the ball past Fletcher on the touchline before hitting a wonderful pass over to his Benfica teammate with the outside of his foot.
His creativity across the final third has generated the level of highbrow interest to prompt Benfica into offering Gaitan a one-year extension on his existing contract. He signed it last month and is now tied down to the club until 2016 with a release clause of €45m protecting his value. Gaitan’s a genuine treat to watch. He takes on players, tries outrageous passes like the Espaldinha – with his shoulder – and has been known to catch goalkeepers off their line or unawares with lobs and shots from distance.
As for Manchester United, Wayne Rooney did not train on Monday, but Sir Alex Ferguson claims he should play. If he is fit, it will be intriguing to see whether he plays in a deeper role in midfield again as he did in his side’s last Champions League game at home to Otelul Galati and in the last Premier League game away to Swansea. Ferguson has said it is a “short-term thing,” though with Tom Cleverley ruled out until Christmas with an ankle injury it might be an option he takes with greater frequency.
Rooney has adapted well when asked to make the position change. It’s as if he has always played there, dictating the tempo and retaining the possession. This is perhaps what Benfica coach Jorge Jesus was alluding to in September when he said: “Rooney is the best British player but doesn’t seem like a British player. He’s like an Argentine or a Brazilian. He can decide the match in the final third and so we have to pay special attention to him.”
It certainly makes for a great occasion at Old Trafford. The past and present may blur on Tuesday night, but, by the same token, the future of Manchester United and Benfica in this year’s Champions League also promises to become that little bit clearer by its end.