A year later, almost to the day, the tables had turned. Benfica travelled to Old Trafford, and they needed a win to progress, at the cost of United’s progression. We fielded our strongest side, and although looked in control in the first half, conceded to a cracking goal just before the half hour mark. It’s not what United fans wanted to see, but it was clearly what the team needed to get their arse in to gear.
United responded well, keeping the ball, and attacking the Benfica goal. With the last touch of the half, Vidic headed home a Ryan Giggs cross. Ronaldo had been taking our free kicks prior to that, and although forced one save from the keeper, not much else had materialised. However this time Giggs played in a great ball which Vidic comfortably fired in to the back of the net.
We needed our half time team talk to be on how to win the game, not how to draw level, and going in at 1-1, confidence was high. Fifteen minutes in to the second half, Ronaldo provided Giggs with a ball to head home, which he did so with ease. Only one player has more assists in the Champions League this season, and it is now Giggs’ twelfth consecutive season of scoring in the European Cup.
Benfica had been killed off by this point, with United continuing to attack. The Portuguese team looked demoralised, and didn’t look as though they would score another.
Our third goal of the game, another header, came from Louis Saha. He had seen a headed effort saved by a Benfica player’s arm at 1-0 down, so looked relieved to see this one find the back of the net. Especially after his penalty miss in the dying minutes against Celtic, he needed to redeem himself. He is now one goal short of being the leading scorer in the competition this season.
As happy as I was to win, we need to put in to perspective what happened last night. Yes, we won the game and we’re through to the Round of 16, but we shouldn’t get too carried away with ourselves. It should be taken as a given at the start of every season that we’re going to get past the group stages. It’s what follows this that counts for anything.
Gary Neville, who I can’t ever seem to fault in his post-match comments, whether it be after playing for United or England, spoke out about our current situation. “In terms of the Champions League, what has happened is nothing special,” he said. “It was not a fantastic night for Manchester United. It was a night we would have expected and one, for 10 years, we have taken for granted.” And he’s right. Teams like Manchester United shouldn’t have to think twice about whether they’ll get past the group stages, and whilst we can be pleased that we have, it certainly isn’t anything to celebrate.
With finishing top, it now means we could be drawn Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Inter Milan in the next round. If you want to win this thing, then you have to beat the best sides at some point, but that doesn’t mean I’m over eager to play Barcelona or Inter Milan. Real Madrid on the other hand I’d quite fancy. It would be great to meet up against old boys Ruud and Beckham, and even greater if we went on to beat them.
We’ve got a long way ahead, we’ve got the first hurdle out of the way… now let’s see how far we can get in this bloody competition.