It was not a game for the neutral as goals and excitement didn’t flow. Manchester United travelled to Portugal knowing that a win over Benfica would allow them to put one foot in the knock-out stage of the Champions League, so a victory was all that was on their minds.
They did eventually get in front through Marcus Rashford and that was that as far as goals were concerned. The win takes United a point clear of Basel in second place and another win over the Portuguese side at Old Trafford in two weeks would put them in an outstanding position to progress from their group.
The game itself passed Benfica by as they remained incredibly passive throughout. United dominated possession and chances as their hosts decided to stand off them and give them space. Unfortunately for the English side, they were unable to profit from this and score more than one goal. The goal they did score was an incredibly fortunate one, with Marcus Rashford’s strike being taken over the line by Benfica goalkeeper Mile Svilar.
From United’s victory, what five things did we learn?
Nemanja Matic is outstanding
Honestly, this is not something that has been a massive secret. Nemanja Matic’s transfer from Chelsea to Manchester United was one that was questioned by almost every single football fan. His defensive ability and tactical awareness is something that has been missing from United’s midfield for a number of years, but now they have found the player to plug that gap in the middle.
Against Benfica, Matic was a standout player in the middle of the park. The Serbian’s defensive work rate was superb as he constantly tracked back and broke up the host’s attacks, but what was most impressive was his skill on the ball. Be it his range of passing, ability to keep the ball moving, vision, or power and intelligence, the midfielder is just exceptional.
With Paul Pogba reportedly out for a number of weeks still, Matic’s importance has only grown. It is vital that Jose Mourinho keeps his star man injury free then by resting him where he can, but the problem with doing that is United lose a lot of momentum when they are without the midfielder.
United’s slow start does not cost them
It was a classic United away display in the opening to the first-half as they struggled to impose themselves. Being the visitors, Mourinho obviously set up to stay compact in the opening exchanges as they began to grow into the game. Once United had begun to dominate possession midway through the first-half, it would mean the home fans would become restless and this would impact upon the players, causing the pressure to rise and cracks to appear.
However, United didn’t need to soak up pressure for opening 15-25 minutes, as Benfica only really tried to attack the away side in the opening 10 minutes. The first-half saw a very low-quality affair though, with United keeping the ball but unable to create much. In the second-half though, United began to dominate. Mourinho’s men enjoyed 64% of the possession in the game which, for an away fixture, is outstanding. They also took a total of 10 shots, of which four were on target, while Benfica were unable to get a shot on target as David de Gea remained untested.
As far as away games go, this was one of the easiest the English side will face all season.
Mile Svilar marks his debut with a howler
While United dominated the game in the second-half, the match was threatening to end in a drab 0-0 draw as both sides struggled to find that spark. However, as he always does, Marcus Rashford was there again to score the winner and maintain the English team’s 100% record.
However, it was not a surging run that won them the game, instead, it was a long-range free-kick that allowed his team to grab all three points. What was so amazing about his goal was the horrendous error that allowed it to go over the line. Benfica’s goalkeeper was debutant Mile Svilar and, despite looking solid in the build-up to the goal, he inexplicably caught Rashford’s free-kick and took it over the line.
What really hurt the goalkeeper was the fact that he came off his line to collect the ball before retreating back. This meant that he lost his bearings in goal and probably assumed that he had more space between himself and his line. He is the youngest goalkeeper to appear in the Champions League at just 18 years and 52 days, and he really looked like a youngster in that moment of madness.
Romelu Lukaku is quiet yet again
Romelu Lukaku was criticised for his below-par performance against Liverpool at the weekend as the Belgian struggled to have any kind of impact upon the game. In the end, it felt very much like that same striker that struggled at Everton when playing against the best teams.
While Benfica won’t go down as a side of the same quality as say Manchester City or Real Madrid, they posed a solid and organised test for United as they looked to maintain their 100% record and stay at the top of the group. They, therefore, needed their hulking striker to play his part, by holding the ball up, creating chances and scoring goals. However, he rarely threatened to do any of this with his performance substandard.
It is incredibly worrying then that he once again went missing in a big game. It is no secret that the Champions League has always been a target of Lukaku’s, but playing in the premier competitions entails playing against Europe’s premier teams, something that he struggles to do. While it is still very early days for the striker at United, if he is not careful, he will begin to make a name for himself as a player that does not turn up in the big games. After all, Harry Kane is becoming known as one of the world’s best strikers because he scores and performs against the best teams. His performance against Real Madrid earned Tottenham a point on Tuesday, while it was the skill of Rashford, and not Lukaku that got United home and dry.
Rashford the Man of the Match yet again
While Marcus Rashford proved to be the match-winner against Benfica, it was not the perfect night for the forward. Rashford was forced off in the second-half with an injury as he was replaced by Anthony Martial. However, his performance and opportunistic strike were what separated the two sides in the end and he was to thank for keeping United’s winning run going.
Indeed, the forward has now been involved in 10 goals this season, scoring six times and assisting four goals, with only Lukaku has been involved in more (11 goals, one assist). The importance of the youngster in the Manchester side cannot be underestimated. When those around him with huge pricetags fail, he is there to take the game back to the opponents, fizz a ball into the box, or score and turn the game on its head. While United have spent hundreds of millions to rebuild their side in recent years, one of their best players did not cost a penny.
Benfica: Svilar 5 – Douglas 6, Luisao 5, Dias 6, Grimaldo 6 – Fejsa 6, Salvio 6 (Cervi 5), Pizzi 6 (Zivkovic 6), Augusto 5, Goncalves 6 (Oliveira 6)- Jimenez 5.
Unused subs: Cesar, Lopez, Samaris, Seferovic.
Manchester United: De Gea 6 – Valencia 7.5, Lindelof 7, Smalling 7, Blind 7 – Herrera 7, Matic 8 – Mata 7 (Lingard 6), Mkhitaryan 5 (McTominay 6), Rashford 8.5 (Martial 6) – Lukaku 6.
Unused subs: Romero, Young, Jones, Darmian.
Referee: Felix Zwayer.
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