For 18 nerve-shredding minutes Manchester United's supporters were subjected to the sort of harrowing thoughts that they can never have imagined when Sir Alex Ferguson's team won their first three Champions League ties of the season. They were losing to a goal of stunning audacity and in danger of making a pig's ear of qualification. It is a measure of their durability that they will be in the draw for the knockout stages.
The Premiership leaders even qualify as Group F winners courtesy of a comeback incorporating three headed goals, another moment to cement Nemanja Vidic's rapidly growing popularity and the perseverance that is needed to turn good teams into great teams.
Ferguson had been emboldened enough to say they could win the competition but the Premiership leaders were precariously close to being relegated into the Uefa Cup and, amid all the back-slapping, the overwhelming emotion here last night was one of relief.
The secret was to get the butterflies to fly in formation but it was only when Marcos Nelson had given Benfica a 28thminute lead that United were jolted into producing the level of performance expected of them. The response was dynamic and, in first-half stoppage-time, the anxiety made way for an explosion of relief as Vidic charged through a congested penalty area to glance in Ryan Giggs's free-kick. It was a goal that washed away the gathering sense of foreboding and from that moment Benfica never looked as dangerous again.
United had begun the game in confident fashion, working their elaborate passing patterns, stretching Benfica along both flanks and at times playing with a formation that resembled 3-3-4, with the outstanding Gary Neville often playing as an auxiliary right-wing.
Yet Benfica were obdurate opponents. The Portuguese champions have some clever, busy players and, having subdued their opponents, they began to emerge in an attacking sense and take control of the match. Their build-up play was measured and controlled and, just before the half-hour, they broke forward to score a goal of such quality even some United fans were forced to applaud.
Simao, predictably, had been at the hub of their most penetrative moves and it was his scampering run that set it up. Yet when he cut the ball back, Nelson was still 30 yards from goal, at an angle not even the most ambitious striker might have considered suitable for shooting. Undeterred, the right-back simply looked up, then walloped his shot to swerve, dip and soar. The ball speared past Edwin van der Sar into the top right-hand corner and, in that moment, Old Trafford was engulfed by a feeling to which it is wholly unaccustomed: a sense of dread and the awful realisation that they might become the first-ever club to be eliminated after winning their opening three group games.
Vidic's goal changed the entire complexion of the game and the body language of the players as they left the pitch at half-time told its own story. Everyone in red was sprinting for the tunnel, high on adrenalin. Their opponents trudged behind, hands on hips, arguing between themselves.
It is odd that Wayne Rooney does not shine in
The Portuguese team were clearly vulnerable in the air and the final flourish was delivered by Louis Saha after a corner by the substitute Darren Fletcher. Old Trafford could finally relax. The torture was over and United had got away with just a scare.
Benfica had Nelson, but Manchester United had victory. The wind briefly taken out of their sails by Nelson's thunderbolt, United responded superbly to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League with three headers from the outstanding Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha. United were all heads and tails up last night.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men will encounter familiar faces on the top table of European football reconvening for a feast in February, as all four Premiership sides qualified for the round of 16 as group winners.
The possibilities offered by 16 balls in two glass bowls at Uefa's Nyon headquarters are fascinating: if the sporting Gods are possessed of a mischievous streak, United could be off to David Beckham's Real Madrid (which would surely persuade him to stay on) or even to Barcelona which would delight Henrik Larsson and sentimentalists everywhere.
Coming to life after Nelson had threatened their continued involvement in the competition that so obsesses them, United mixed their high-speed raids with real intelligence, and it could easily have been four or five.
Criticised for his diving at the
First, though, he had to play second fiddle to his compatriot, Nelson. Amazingly, United's defenders turned a blind eye to Nelson's run and he was able to reach Simao's cutback unchecked. Meeting the ball sweetly, Nelson drilled it powerfully past the despairing reach of Edwin van der Sar, the shot clocking 73mph as it raced through 26 yards of damp
United, typically, responded strongly, raising their tempo. Ronaldo saw a free kick pushed over, then Saha hit the post, and Nelson appeared to handle the loose ball. The dam had to break. On the cusp of half-time, United's pressure told. When Ronaldo was fouled, Giggs bent in a tempting free-kick that the unmarked Vidic headed in. Relief flooded through Old Trafford.
Ronaldo clearly had the appetite for the fray and he was in devastating form down the right, leaving those who dared mark him with straining sinews and scrambled senses. On the hour, he ignored Leo's attempts to close him down and bent in a fine cross that dropped between Benfica's centre-halves, invitingly for the onrushing Giggs. The Welshman made no mistake with a routine header into an unguarded net.
Ronaldo then fell under Petit's challenge and appeared to have a case for a penalty, yet may now be paying the price for past antics. Fandel indicated only a corner.
United still conjured up a goal from the dead ball. Swung in by Giggs' replacement Darren Fletcher, the ball thudded into Saha's forehead: 3-1.
Yet, just as predictions that last December's defeat signalled the death rattle of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign proved wide of the mark, so we should hesitate before hailing this victory as a signpost to a glorious future.
Three headers from Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha turned looming calamity into an ultimately comfortable victory. Ronaldo had played a part in all three goals, crossing for one and winning two set-pieces for the others.
Just as with United and
The United manager likes to talk of his team's habit of living dangerously in
Certainly, Old Trafford felt like an anxious place for the next 18 minutes and Wayne Rooney betrayed his unease when he was booked for dissent. He had begun on the right of a five-man midfield — a sign that
Nélson's goal had served to remind United that level terms would leave them vulnerable to a late calamity and so they came out for the second half with the same attacking intent as they had finished the first. Saha should have done better than blast over with his left foot, but the lead was to come just after the hour mark when Ronaldo, now switched to his familiar right flank, picked out Giggs for a free header. The veteran Welshman came off soon afterwards, his enduring value highlighted once again.