Man United 2 Benfica 0: Manchester United fans are starting to understand properly now what it means to support a Jose Mourinho team so it should come as no real surprise to them that United beat Benfica with a lucky own goal and a penalty, that they look set to qualify comfortably for the last 16 of the Champions League after four wins from four, or that despite those facts it was all rather uninspiring.
Mourinho has made it very clear since he arrived at Old Trafford that he is going to do it all his way, unfettered by the burden of the glorious football of the Busy Babes or the adrenalin-rush of Alex Ferguson’s wingers, the memory of Fergie time dramas or even necessarily the impact of generations of youth team heroes.
When the Special One ‘shushed’ the Old Trafford crowd who groaned as Romelu Lukaku missed chances against Tottenham last weekend, he underlined who was in charge and how it was going to be; in return United fans can expect a team that does just enough to win, a team which plays tactically against big opponents and a team which wins trophies.
Only when you know that can you understand why this rather tepid victory, secured by an own goal from Benfica goalkeeper Mile Svilar (who incidentally also handed United victory in Lisbon when he allowed Marcus Rashford to score with a free-kick in a 1-0 victory) and a late Daley Blind penalty was perfectly to plan and bang on message — even if it was also a little lucky, dull and unconvincing.
“Being good defensively is not a crime,” Mourinho had said after the game in Portugal, repeating the kind of rhetoric he used following a goalless draw at Anfield.
Now another clean sheet leaves his side six points clear at the top of Group A with two to play (only CSKA Moscow’s win in Basel prevented United qualifying on the night) — and still in with a chance of winning four major trophies.
So although some critics will say the performance left much to be desired — and that questions about United’s ability to go all the way are certainly unanswered — it was still ‘job done’.
Inevitably all eyes were on top scorer Lukaku, scorer of 16 goals for club and country this season but strangely under pressure after five games without a goal since that excellent early burst.
Mourinho sought to ease the burden with his finger-to-lips message last week, and he continued the theme in his pre-match press conference for Benfica by claiming Lukaku was ‘untouchable’ in his eyes and should be similarly appreciated on the terraces.
Did those tactics do anything to ease the pressure on the former Everton man?
Not really, because if anything they only served to highlight a problem which nobody outside of Old Trafford was really aware of. But they did provide the Belgian with an assurance he is loved and supported by his manager and provide him with an opportunity to answer his critics in the best way; which is probably what the Special One had in mind.
The striker didn’t exactly do that, but the groans were gone and that may prove significant for a player whose confidence can be brittle. He had two big chances here, one smart shot turned wide and one header over the bar, in a first half in which United missed a penalty and also endured one or two scares against a Benfica side which looked much improved since the teams met in Lisbon earlier in the campaign.
All that mattered not, however, when Nemanja Matic — a former Benfica player — shot form long distance after 45 minutes and saw the ball hit the post, cannon off the back of teenage goalkeeper Mile Svilar and roll into the net.
An own goal was cruel on Svilar, who earlier saved Anthony Martial’s penalty after the Frenchman was tripped in the area (justice, perhaps because even staunch United fans would have to admit Martial went down rather easily).
United had a second penalty claim, perhaps a more justified one, turned down when Juan Mata was blocked but they were also indebted, as so often, to goalkeeper David de Gea who made a quite outstanding save, flying full length to prevent Diogo Goncalves’ swirling and powerful long-range shot nestling in the top corner of his net.
De Gea produced another fine stop from the same player after the break and as United, predictably, resisted the temptation to try and add to their lead and allowed the Portuguese side to burn out. That, of course, is the Mourinho way.
It nearly came at a price when Raul Jiminez hit the post but Marcus Rashford’s arrival soon settled nerves, winning a penalty which Blind fired home.
Mourinho, in fact, appeared to point to Lukaku when the penalty was won, but that instruction was missed as Blind and Ander Herrera fought over the ball.
It was the only thing the Special One didn’t do his own way.
De Gea 7, Darmian 5, Bailly 7, Smalling 6, Blind 6; McTominay 5, Matic 7; Martial 6 (Rashford 75; 6), Lingard 5 (Mkhitaryan 46; 6), Mata (Herrera 68; 6); Lukaku 6.
Svilar 6; Grimaldo 7 (Eliseu 64; 6), Ruben Dias 6, Jardel 6, Douglas 6; Samaris 6, Fejsa 6, Pizzi 5; Salvio 6, Jiminez 6 (Seferovic 74; 6), Diogo Goncalves 7.
Gediminias Mazeika (Lithuania).
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