Manchester United FC exorcised the ghost of their early elimination from Europe 12 months ago as they fought back to claim their place in the last 16 with an ultimately convincing 3-1 victory over SL Benfica.
This UEFA Champions League Group F decider was a repeat of last season's Matchday 6 showdown between these sides but it could not have ended more differently as United avenged their 2-1 defeat in Lisbon a year ago tomorrow. Stirred into action by Nélson's spectacular 27th-minute strike, there was only going to be one winner once Nemanja Vidić had headed the hosts level on the stroke of half-time, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha confirming the inevitable in the second period. To ice the cake for United, Celtic FC's loss at FC København ensured them top spot in the section – and a tie against a group runner-up in February, when Benfica will go into the UEFA Cup.
Unlike Benfica, United needed only a point to progress and they reined in their attacking instincts in a cautious start. With Wayne Rooney operating on the left of a five-man midfield and Giggs dropping into the centre alongside Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, Benfica, faced a wall of red shirts whenever they gained possession. The Portuguese team had scored early goals in beating both Celtic and København but here it was United who threatened first, Quim forced into the game's first save from Rio Ferdinand.
The match burst into life with Nélson's opener midway through the first half. Simão - deployed alongside Fabrizio Miccoli in the visitors' attack with Nuno Gomes in a withdrawn role - ran at Patrice Evra down the right but rather than cross, chose to lay the ball back to Nélson and the full-back unleashed an unstoppable shot high to Edwin van der Sar's right.
Moments later Quim tipped Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick over the crossbar and suddenly we had a cup tie. From the ensuing corner Vidić flicked on to Saha whose far-post header was blocked by Quim, the ball bouncing on to the arm of Nélson on its way to safety. United came again, Gary Neville crossing low to Saha who stabbed wide of the near post. Benfica had a glimpse of a second goal when Nuno Gomes supplied Miccoli but the Italian failed to make a clean connection, otherwise it was one-way traffic. Half-chances came and went, but just when Benfica looked poised to reach half-time in front, the impressive Vidić rose highest to meet Giggs's free-kick and bullet a header into the net.
United in front
The second half brought more of the same, with United driving at the Benfica back line – and cutting through it with some irresistible wing play, notably from Ronaldo. Although Petit flashed a free-kick over Van der Sar's crossbar, a second United strike seemed inevitable and after Saha had blazed over, it came on 61 minutes via the head of Giggs. For once Ronaldo stopped in his tracks out on the right, looked up and delivered the perfect cross to the Welshman who powered in his first UEFA Champions League goal since this corresponding fixture last season. On 75 minutes it was three – and a third header - as substitute Darren Fletcher swung over a corner and Saha buried his fourth goal of the group stage. For the Premiership leaders the job was done. After last year's slip-up, Sir Alex Ferguson's men are back in the knockout stage.
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