United look back in time for inspiration

If football teams are inspired by great deeds of yesteryear then Manchester United should have every chance of progressing to the Champions League knockout stages when they take on Benfica tomorrow night in the Stadium of Light.

If football teams are inspired by great deeds of yesteryear then Manchester United should have every chance of progressing to the Champions League knockout stages when they take on Benfica tomorrow night in the Stadium of Light.

The team talk for Alex Ferguson could not be simpler: ’Just do your Best.’

If players such as Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and Joe Cole were inspired by the numerous video clip tributes to George Best’s brilliance over the past 10 days - and they admitted as much – then the grainy images of Best destroying Benfica in the European Cup quarter-final almost 40 years ago must have resonated in the Old Trafford dressing room.

That 5-1 victory against a team which had never lost a European game at home was widely regarded as Best’s greatest match in a United shirt.

He scored two goals, one a brilliant looping header and the other a crisp, right-footed drive after a typically surging burst into the penalty area.

The Portuguese dubbed him ’El Beatle’ and he returned home wearing a sombrero amid acclaim from fans and team-mates.

“In that match we played our best-ever game as a team,” said former United midfielder Pat Crerand.

“Nothing we did before or after can compare with the way we turned it on that night.”

Bobby Charlton agreed. “George was never quicker or fitter than he was that night,” said Charlton. “It was his best game for United. They couldn’t control him and afterwards we got our first glimpse of his superstar status.”

What a time then for the current United team to tap into what is bound to be another inevitable round of Best emotion following his extraordinary funeral in Belfast on Saturday and emulate the determination and quality of that glorious night.

The signs are promising, not least because in Wayne Rooney United have a man capable of reigniting the cavalier spirit of Best back in 1966.

Rooney, like Best, plays without fear, scores exceptional goals and is capable of producing the pinnacle of his talent when his team and his club need it most.

The stakes for United could not be higher.

Lose and United face their earliest Champions League exit since 1994-95 and with it £15m (€22.1m) the club could ill afford to forfeit after the debts accrued following the Glazer family takeover.

Win and suddenly United, in supposed crisis just weeks ago, will feel they have emerged from one of the darkest times in Ferguson’s 19-year reign in good shape – second in the Premiership and with an even chance of going all the way to the Champions League final in Paris in May.

It has to be said the departure of Roy Keane, once a vital ingredient in European games of this magnitude, has assisted in United’s revival.

Since Keane left, players such as Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Alan Smith have performed with more freedom, revelling in the absence of Irish intimidation and the constant threat of piercing criticism.

Paul Scholes appears to be regaining the zest he had lost for the game and while United still need two world-class midfielders if they are to challenge Chelsea at home, the mood has lifted. There is a sense that a corner has been turned.

Yet, they have failed to score in four out of their five Champions League group games this season.

Against Benfica, no longer a side who carry the swagger of Eusebio’s team of yesteryear, they need to rediscover their cutting edge.

To help stoke up the nostalgia United have invited heroes of their 1968 European Cup final triumph, also against Benfica, such as Nobby Stiles, John Aston and Brian Kidd, to the Stadium of Light.

The Lisbon night will crackle with anticipation and emotion as befits the endless fascination with Britain’s most famous club.

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