By Tony Mogan
Considerably more entertaining, but equally frustrating would sum up Manchester United’s exasperating 2-2 draw with Benfica last night. Once again, United have left themselves with no other option than to do things the hard way, needing to pick up a positive result in the final group game, a trip to Basel. Back in September, this game was viewed as a mere formality, an opportunity for United to perhaps rest and rotate members of the squad with the notoriously hectic Christmas period looming. But with the perturbing prospect of United missing out on the knock out stages of the Champions League now a worrying possibility, there will be no time for that. Drawn into what appeared to be a straight forward group, performances littered with defensive lapses and dangerously open game plans have left United in desperate need of a result, and an inspiring performance to boot. The catastrophic consequences of last year’s runners up bowing out of the Champions League before Christmas are hard to fathom, but improvements must be made to avoid such a thing happening.
1. Defensive superiority in Europe – what’s happened?
In the past 3/4 years, United’s defending away from home in the Champions League has been indisputably remarkable. Amazingly, its goals conceded at Old Trafford that has become the biggest cause of concern. United have conceded six goals in the group stages thus far, five of them coming at home. With respect to Basel and Benfica, these are teams United would have been expected to beat at home, and with far less stress inflicted on the fans, too. But both sides attacked the United goal with worrying freedom, bought on by lapses in concentration and nerve-wracking moments of indecision. During the group stages of last season’s Champions League, United conceded just one goal, coming in a 1-1 draw at home to Valencia, with United having already secured their passage to their knock out stages. Yes, United remain unbeaten at this stage, but the ever-increasing tally in the goals conceded column is worrying, exacerbated by a perceived lack of a cutting edge at the other end of the pitch. Both were evident during last night’s game.
2. Performance vs. Results?
Following United’s humiliation at the hands of City last month, the Reds have gone on a succession of pragmatic, and at times, uninspiring 1-0 victories. Such wins away to Everton and Swansea and at home to Sunderland have hardly been candidates for Game Of The Year, but they have provided some much needed points and a period of solidarity following that potentially destabilising result. While this is hardly new territory (frustrated fans should be quick to remember United’s succession of six 1-0 victories during the first half of the 07/08 campaign, things didn’t end too badly in the end in that case), the lack of balance between entertaining performances and resounding results is a concern. There seems to be a bizarre contrast between United’s domestic and European exploits. A cautious, almost catenaccio-esque system that would have Helenio Herrera vehemently nodding in approval one week, replaced by the outrageously cavalier brand of kamikaze football which allows the opposition to mercilessly pick United off at ease, the next. Fans were treated to the energy, zeal, and boldness that has been missing in recent weeks during last night’s game, but it came at a cost.
3. Solidarity of Carrick and Fletcher.
Man United perceived short comings in midfield have been further intensified by the news that Tom Cleverley will be ruled out until Christmas. With Anderson’s lack of consistency an increasingly puzzling and frustrating problem, it was a relief to see Michael Carrick turn in another solid performance against Benfica. A frequent target for United’s boo boys, Carrick picked up where he left off against Swansea with an impressive show, effectively shielding United’s back four and providing real moments of class in a game that rapidly flowed from one end to the other. Carrick will miss out on the final group game in Switzerland, suspended after picking up a dubious yellow card in the 76th minute, but signs of a return to form are promising. A tireless performance from Darren Fletcher was another positive, constantly making himself available for the pass and was duly rewarded with a well taken goal. Fletcher’s efforts alongside Michael Carrick gave United an element of control in midfield for the majority of the game, against a Benfica midfield packed with the industry of Alex Witsel and Javi Garcia, complemented by the guile of Pablo Aimar. Fletcher looked much like his old self, and he will be looking to re-establish himself in United’s engine room over the next few months.
4. An education for Phil Jones
Phil Jones’ Premier League exploits in a United shirt have been nothing short of magnificent, and he has swiftly justified his price tag and earned him the recognition of a future United and England captain. But that first season in the Champions League is an enormous step up for any youngster. Add the small matter of playing in the heart of defence for one of Europe’s most successful clubs and that step up only increases in size. Are United fans too expectant of the 19-year-old? Jones has been drafted across an almost ever-changing defence, and at times during last night’s game, signs of his inexperience were evident. They were there in the 3-3 draw with Basel, too. Champions League football and domestic football are entirely different animals. Jones plays with the maturity and confidence of someone way beyond his 19 years in the Premier League, but he is still a Champions League debutant. Unlucky to send Nicolas Gaitan’s cross into his own net, the own goal may have affected the youngster’s confidence on the night. This season’s campaign looks to be an educational one for United’s young stars, not entirely dissimilar to the 05/06 campaign where Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher were taught some harsh lessons.
5. There may be trouble ahead…
It will sound painfully obvious, but United will have to address the issues which have plagued this uncomfortable group stage. A look at the potential ties that face United providing they come away with the right result in Switzerland makes for some grim reading at this moment in time. It hard to envisage Benfica failing to beat Galati at home on the 7th December, and should Arsenal and Chelsea quality and top their respective groups, as they are widely expected to do so, United’s list of potential opponents causes one or two nervous glances, with Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Real Madrid and Barcelona possibly lying in wait. United on their day can match anyone, but you would expect a serious evaluation of squad performance and tactics after this perplexing group stage. But as mentioned earlier, Manchester United and the idea of doing things the simple way free of hiccups rarely go hand in hand. Why change it?
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