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quarta-feira, dezembro 07, 2005


DISMAL UNITED DUMPED OUT OF EUROPE. There will be severe ramifications and the kind of audit that may well see Sir Alex Ferguson dismissed next summer, but let all of that wait. This was a night of sporting poignancy, when Manchester United led, fell behind and for once found that all their passion could not bring about the sort of heart-stopping comeback for which they are famed. For the first time in 10 seasons, the Champions League group knockout phase will go ahead without them. Having finished bottom of Group D there is to be no berth in even the Uefa Cup. All that the team could do, as it expired in European football for this season, was to dedicate itself to the philosophy by which it once thrived. Only a straightforward victory or defeat in this game could have determined their fate without any reference being required to the result in the other group fixture. It was no part of the plan, so early in the night, to exchange an opener for a pair of Benfica goals in reply, but Ferguson had come with at least a desire to dictate the football fates. There was much to make him worry that his burning adventurousness would see him go down in flames. This, all the same, was an occasion when he would never have to rebuke himself for timidity. So stunned were Benfica in the opening minutes that they must have been totally unable to accept that United had come to their ground with a throwback formation. The Old Trafford club pines for its heyday and here was a retro approach. In the home of Benfica, a pair of United strikers could expect the service of two wingers. The temperament of Ronaldo, on the right, was wound so tight that, for a while, it twanged whenever the action came to him. The former Sporting Lisbon player had his emotions toyed with by a crowd renewing their animosity towards an old foe. One moment he was knocking the ball straight out of play and the next he was bursting on to a Paul Scholes pass, only for the goalkeeper Quim to smother at his feet. To the crowd's satisfaction, he would eventually be booked for a foul on Beto, but a yellow card was incidental to a contest that was working itself into a frenzy. United enjoyed the first excitement. Ryan Giggs dinked the ball right-footed to the flank and Gary Neville's rolled the pinpoint cut-back that Scholes, as if taken back by the simplicity, bundled into the net in a clumsy fashion. Yet, as first-half events turned, when he compelled Quim to tip over a 30-yarder towards the interval, he was aiming for an equaliser. The deficit shocked United. Benfica's coach Ronald Koeman has had to live with sneering comparisons to his successful predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni. But there was to be a partial recapturing of former glories before half-time. Benfica, following the Scholes goal, slowly recovered their fluidity and often directed themselves towards the United left, where they saw weakness in John O'Shea. The Irishman has had some excellent times at full-back but the middle of the defence looks a more natural home for him and he might not have appeared at all had injury not written off Gabriel Heinze's season. Whatever the flaws, though, there had to be deep admiration for the flat, fast cross that Nelson zipped towards the six-yard box after 16 minutes. United were in no state to deal with it and an unmarked Geovanni headed past Edwin van der Sar. Misfortune soon snapped at the visitors as, in the 34th minute, they fell behind. Anderson skipped away on the United left and when Alan Smith headed out his cross, a shot from some 20 yards by Beto was rerouted into the net by a deflection off Scholes. The match was in a phase that made United quiver and there was relief that the referee Kyros Vassaras ruled wrongly that Geovanni had dived when Benfica argued that Mikael Silvestre had floored him in the penalty area. That danger had come for a counter-attack, a style that suits the quick passing of Benfica. A losing United had to lay themselves open to risk, as they often have in an era that has had almost as much tumult as glory under Ferguson. Koeman's men fancied themselves to hold out, although many coaches in the past have underestimated the tirelessness of United in such situations. They could have been level after a patient move in the 58th minute which eventually saw Ruud van Nistelrooy play the ball through to Ronaldo, but he could not find a true finish from the right as he shot beyond the far post. Soon, Giggs was replaced by Louis Saha, with Ferguson hoping Wayne Rooney could find more space by moving towards the left. Ronaldo, who had deteriorated into consistent ineffectiveness, was taken off and, as he left, made a rude gesture to the home support. Park Ji-sung took over. United, knowing they needed just a draw so long as Villarreal held on to a 1-0 lead over Lille, were full of endeavour but searching desperately for inspiration. Kevin McCarra no Estadio da Luz - Guardian


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