Manchester United vs Benfica: Five things we learned

Manchester United eased past Benfica last night to come within a point of the knock-out stages. Andy Dickinson looks at five things we learned as the Reds go marching on.

Another clean sheet and another win put Manchester United on the brink of qualification from the group stages as they continue their successful return to Champions League football.

On a night when David de Gea was the busier of the two keepers, there were few scares for the Red Devils. With the exception of an Eric Bailly suicide pass across the edge of his own box, the Manchester United defence stood firm and limited Benfica to long-range efforts. 

At the other end of the pitch, United approached the game with an emphasis on both pace and patience. Anthony Martial was spellbinding and infuriating in equal parts while birthday boy Marcus Rashford showed that he may have left his teenage years behind him but he still knows how to terrorise defenders. 

RealSport take a look at five things that we learned as Jose’s United made it twelve points out of twelve.

  1. 1 Out of Luk

    With Anthony Martial, the nominated penalty-taker, already off the pitch, Romelu Lukaku was eager to take on the responsibility for his team in the 78th minute when Rashford was fouled in the box. Not only did Mourinho over-rule his striker in handing the spot-kick to Daley Blind, he was also caught seemingly admonishing the striker with a hand gesture for arguing his case to take the penalty.

    Having now gone six games without a goal, Lukaku is currently suffering his second-longest barren spell in English football. While it’s not yet worthy of comparison to the 13-game goalless streak that came to an end just over a year ago, it is worth noting that he came out of that run with an eleven-minute hat-trick for Everton against Sunderland. 

    During the match, Lukaku was primarily used as a hold-up player to bring United’s wingers up the pitch last night but did have chances to score. Most notably was an opportunity which had him running through on goal after splitting the defence at the end of the first half. However, he was unable to beat the alert and on-rushing Svilar. 

    Ironically, for someone whose attitude is often questioned, the Belgian striker was often caught on camera galvanising the players around him. It’s this sort of response, along with his work-rate, which will see him soon end this mini-slump.

  2. 2 Raw potential

    If there’s anything worse than having no luck, it’s being blighted by bad luck. Following a stroke of misfortune which saw him carry the ball over his own line in the reverse fixture, 18-year-old Mile Svilar once again fell victim to fortune as Matic’s thunderous 25-yard strike rebounded into the goal off his back after cracking the upright. 

    The youngest keeper to have played Champions League football in the competition's history looked generally solid throughout the fixture. However, he now also carries the unenviable distinction of being the youngest player in Champions League history to score an own-goal.

    With the experienced Brazilian Luisão unavailable due to suspension, Benfica lined up with 20-year-old Ruben Dias playing at centre back just ahead of Svilar. Although Dias was burnt by the pace and trickery of Rashford for United’s second penalty, he also looks to be a promising player emerging from Benfica’s ever-rolling academy production line.

  3. 3 Being left dominant

    All of United’s best attacks came down the left wing, either through Anthony Martial or his replacement Marcus Rashford. With pace and precision being the preferred method of attack for Jose Mourinho, it was two such bursts along the flank and into the box which brought about the penalties as Benfica’s defence struggled to contain the threat.

    Playing in this manner highlighted just how unbalanced Manchester United’s front-three currently are. With Juan Mata unable to provide the same danger, he constantly passed the ball inside the pitch where Benfica dealt with the threat comfortably. 

    Henrikh Mkhitaryan does have pace and the ability to offer something similar to Martial and Rashford. However, the out-of-form forward always prefers to cut his run inside and take a more direct line rather than stretching the defence. 

    Perhaps the summer bid for Ivan Perišić could have addressed this shortfall with wingers then able to interchange positions through a match. For the time being, though, Mourinho must find a style that can incorporate these different attributes into his overall game-plan.

  4. 4 Benfica heading home

    Mathematically, Benfica could still qualify for the knock-out stage of the Champions League. Realistically though, the Portuguese champions are highly unlikely to lift themselves from the foot of Group A and qualify for the Europa League.

    Having entered the competition as one of the highest-seeded teams, Benfica were the highest-ranked side in Group A but have now succumbed to four successive defeats. With only a single goal scored and ten conceded, Rui Vitória’s team are suffering at both ends of the pitch.

    This comes in contrast to the solitary defeat from ten games in the Primeira Liga although the Águias currently sit third behind rivals Sporting and leaders Porto. To keep alive any slim hope they still harbour, Benfica must now travel to Moscow before hosting a Basel side who demolished them 5-0 at the end of September all the time relying on Manchester United to win both of their remaining fixtures.

  5. 5 True strength in depth

    Injuries to Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini may have created a shortage of midfield physicality for Manchester United. This did not worry Jose Mourinho, though, who simply plucked another tall, strong midfielder from United’s academy to fill the void. Scott McTominay followed up an impressive display against Swansea in the Carabao Cup with another commanding cup game last night.

    Playing centrally alongside Nemanja Matic, McTominay did not look out of place at this level, looking assured on the ball with the second highest number of passes made by a United player and a passing accuracy ratio that finished a shade over 86%. Positionally and defensively he was also sound and a steady game had him bring much control to the game for the Red Devils.

    With next weekend’s opponents Chelsea falling in ignominy to Roma, Antonio Conte once again bemoaned the shortage of options available to him from his squad. Having 34 players currently on loan may be down on last year’s total of 38. However, it has seriously depleted their resource: a trap which United have avoided with only 8 of their talented youths currently playing elsewhere.

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