MANCHESTER, England — Here are three quick thoughts after Man United left it late to complete a 2-0 win over Benfica in Champions League matchday 4.
1. Man United on the brink of last 16
Manchester United are just a point away from progressing to the last 16 of the Champions League, and in keeping with recent performances, they earned this 2-0 win over Benfica in the most functional way. It will not live long in the memory, and they had a slice of luck when, just before half-time, Benfica goalkeeper Mile Svilar unwittingly scored an own goal that broke the deadlock. By that stage, Anthony Martial had already missed a penalty. Daley Blind went on to score one in the second half to confirm United’s win, as well as all but confirm the Portuguese side’s exit from the competition.
United weathered a series of dangerous, early raids from their visitors before passing up on a glorious chance to take the lead. Benfica protested at length when Douglas, who had lost a grappling match with Martial, was penalised for handballing as he fell in the box. The decision by referee Gediminas Mazeika to award a penalty looked harsh, but Benfica need not have worried: Martial’s spot kick, aimed low to Svilar’s right, lacked power, and the young goalkeeper turned it wide. Two weeks ago, Svilar’s own goal swung the previous fixture in United’s favour, and at that stage, it felt like redemption for the 18-year-old.
Benfica continued to attack the home side, and Diogo Goncalves, cutting in and hitting a rising shot from 25 yards, forced a flying save from David De Gea almost instantly. United posed a threat on the counter. On the half-hour, Svilar made a sharp save at his near post from Romelu Lukaku. Then the striker rose to meet a Martial cross but headed a presentable opportunity over the bar instead. The first half was lumbering to a close when Matic, taking aim 30 yards out, let fly with a low, slow 30-yard shot that struck the post, bounced out and rebounded back into the net via the back of the hapless Svilar.
Having begun the game so brightly, Benfica needed to do much more after the break to keep their campaign intact. Raul Jimenez forced a save from David De Gea in the 57th minute, and they came much closer just before the hour when the lively Goncalves, having skipped past Chris Smalling, arrowed a low shot toward the far corner that De Gea tipped away. With 25 minutes to play, Jimenez, gifted the chance by a disastrous square pass from Eric Bailly, should have equalised, but he struck the outside of De Gea’s post.
Ultimately, their threat dimmed, and with 14 minutes left, substitute Marcus Rashford went down in the area after slight contact from Andreas Samaris halted his menacing run. Blind succeeded where Martial failed earlier, putting the game to bed and making United’s performance look more convincing than it really was.
2. Lukaku’s drought is not United’s biggest issue
Lukaku has now gone six competitive games without a goal, but surely any concern has to be tempered. He missed two first-half opportunities on Tuesday, but neither fell into the “sitter” category, and this run of form has to be put in the context of what he’s working with. For long periods, he worked hard alone up front, supported at times by the lively runs of Martial down the left flank, and he can hardly be blamed for the lack of service coming his way. On another night, he might have scored just before half-time, with Svilar saving as he ran through, but that chance came through slack defending and not the guile of his United teammates.
In saying after the win over Tottenham that Lukaku is “untouchable in my team,” Jose Mourinho pledged faith in the Belgium international where perhaps it was not necessary. Lukaku’s form for United has been excellent overall, and his manager is relying on him for more than goals. There is a disjointedness to United at the moment that has owed plenty to injuries; a reliable leader of the line who can battle for challenges and get you out of trouble by running the channels is like gold dust in this kind of situations, and Lukaku put in another hardworking performance.
It was certainly not a United performance to set the pulse racing, with six changes from the Tottenham game hardly helping any fluidity, even if the sight of young midfielder Scott McTominay making his first Champions League start in midfield was a welcome one.
“I hope you enjoy the game more than some of you did against Spurs,” Mourinho told the United fans, rather pointedly, in his programme notes. They probably did not, all told, but their centre-forward’s form should not be high among their concerns.
3. Svilar curses luck as Benfica crash out
Svilar must be wondering if he broke a mirror recently. The Belgium goalkeeper is an exceptional young prospect but might want to put this doubleheader against United down to a character-building exercise. There was nothing he could do about the own goal that edged Benfica’s opponents ahead in a match that was essentially going nowhere; it was sheer bad luck, and after the joy of his earlier penalty save, it seemed especially cruel.
Big talent is only effective with big character, and the consolation was that Svilar clearly has both. He showed it moments after the goal, when he stood firm to deflect Lukaku’s shot wide after a defensive effort, but the United striker clean through on goal. As Svilar walked off the pitch at half-time, he was consoled by the Benfica substitute goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, who is 20 years his senior and has more experience than most of football’s ups and downs. But not even the veteran could lay claim to two records like those Svilar racked up in the first 45 minutes. He was already the youngest goalkeeper in Champions League history. On Tuesday, he became the youngest to save a penalty in the competition and the youngest player to score an own goal.
Svilar’s ill-fortune was not the only unlucky break to which Benfica could point. They had a reasonable shout for a penalty shortly before Martial won his, with midfielder Pizzi falling to the ground near the byline as Eric Bailly ran across him. They also found De Gea in fine form, and for concerted periods in the game, the visitors looked more fluent than their hosts.
It was win or bust for Rui Vitoria’s side, and backed by a buoyant away support whose use of flares may well bring down some censure from UEFA, they certainly went for it here. But it was not enough, and the end result was an ignominious exit from the Champions League for a famous old club that is in the midst of its worst European run following five straight defeats. At least they have a goalkeeper who, despite his torment this month, should have the courage to go again next year.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.