Fri, Dec 08, 2006 - Page 24 News List

Man U bury Benfica to enter final 16

AFP , MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, back, fights for the ball with Benfica Lisbon's Ricardo Rocah during their UEFA Championships League Group F soccer match at the Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: EPA

Manchester United survived a jittery start to advance to the Champions League knockout stages as winners of Group F after a 3-1 win over Benfica here on Wednesday.

Perhaps mindful of the Lisbon side's role in eliminating them at this stage last season, United were hesitant and uncharacteristically lackluster in an opening half-hour that saw them fall behind to a stunning 25-yard (22.9m) strike by Benfica fullback Nelson.

But an equalizer in first-half stoppage time from Nemanja Vidic settled the nerves and the Premiership leaders ultimately came home with something to spare after second-half headers from Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha.

United manager Alex Ferguson admitted he had been perplexed by his side's slow start.

"The Benfica goal was maybe the thing that lifted us off," he said.

"The support went off, the players got angry and we played like Manchester United. By the end we got better and better. I think maybe we have too many young players to play a patient game. When they play the cut-throat way they are a good side," Ferguson said.

Benfica coach Fernando Santos felt Vidic's goal just before the break had determined the outcome.

"We had been controlling the game but the equalizer made things much more difficult for us and in the second half United were too good," he said.

Needing only a draw against opponents who had to win to progress, United took to the field in a 4-5-1 line-up rarely seen at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney switched from his normal role just behind Saha to a deep-lying midfield slot.

By the time Benfica had taken the lead, United had managed just two goal attempts: a long-range effort from Ronaldo which flew comfortably wide and a shot from Rio Ferdinand which Quim, the Benfica goalkeeper, blocked comfortably enough.

Despite their lack of penetration, United had been given little cause for concern from their Portuguese guests until Nelson put them ahead in spectacular style.

Sabrosa Simao, the Benfica captain, was the architect, twisting and turning Patrice Evra on the right of the box before laying the ball back to his team-mate, who beat Edwin van der Sar with a superb, angled drive that flew into the opposite top corner.

United's response was to emerge from the torpor that had characterized their efforts up to that point. Within minutes of the goal, Ronaldo had had a dipping freekick tipped over acrobatically by Quim, a Giggs corner generated panic in the Benfica goalmouth and Saha had got in front of his marker to strike Gary Neville's astute low cross wide of the target from 12 yards out.

The greater urgency from the home side finally produced an equalizer with the last touch of the first-half, Vidic rising to flick Giggs's deep free-kick past Quim after Rooney had been brought down close to the left touchline.

When the two sides emerged for the second half, Rooney had been restored to his usual position and Benfica immediately found themselves on the back foot.

Luisao was fortunate to see his attempted interception of a Giggs cross skid narrowly beyond the far post of his own goal before Ronaldo's trickery on the right generated another good chance for Saha, who blasted over from 14 yards.

Afforded time on the right by the Benfica left-back Leo, Ronaldo had time to pick out an unmarked Giggs on the edge of the six-yard box and, with Quim rooted to his line, the 33-year-old had the most comfortable of headed finishes.

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