'Eased the pain'
On that May day in 1968 tears flowed in memory of United players and officials who died ten years earlier on a flight back from a European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade. With manager Sir Matt Busby and captain Bobby Charlton among the survivors, the script of their ten-year quest for closure could hardly have been better written. "The moment Bobby took the cup, it cleansed me," said Sir Matt. "It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe."
Unlikely as it seems in these days of increasing international club competition, United and Benfica had not met since that final, which ought to have made this game a very special occasion, at least for United. The club did its best with a celebratory dinner on the eve of the match and a souvenir programme including a mock-up of the front cover of the 1968 final programme and some wonderful reminiscences such as Busby's above.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the contemporary agenda proved too pressing to allow sentiment to interfere last night and so a little history slipped quietly away, almost unnoticed in the aftermath of a hard-fought 2-1 win for United. The agenda in question, at least for the home club, was the prospect of going five games without a win for the first time in seven years.
It would have happened but for Ruud van Nistelrooij’s late winner after Benfica’s captain, the superb Simão Sabrosa, had cancelled out Ryan Giggs's first-half free-kick with an even better one of his own midway through the second half to set up an exciting finale to an entertaining game.
United’s fans, who had turned on manager Sir Alex Ferguson after the weekend defeat at home against lowly Blackburn Rovers FC, were behind their team and their manager from the start, while Benfica's 3,000-strong travelling contingent certainly added to the atmosphere of the occasion.
For United, even without the suspended Wayne Rooney, it was something of a glimpse of the future with Kieran Richardson, Phil Bardsley and John O’Shea drafted in to a makeshift back line. Another youngster, former Sporting Clube de Portugal winger Cristiano Ronaldo, was eager to impress against his former Lisbon rivals, while the less flamboyant but equally valuable Darren Fletcher worked tirelessly alongside him in midfield.
Having said that Sir Alex knows only too well the value of experienced players like Giggs. "Apart from giving us a good performance he helped Kieran Richardson throughout the whole night, telling him when to attack," he said.
Seeing the familiar figure of Ronald Koeman patrolling the touchline is a reminder that Benfica themselves have aspirations beyond their meagre European achievements of recent seasons. "We played to win," said Koeman. "We had one or two opportunities, but they still have some very good attacking players, even though they had a young defence."
Guest of honour
The watching Eusébio, a guest of honour, had reason to be proud of the Benfica players representing his old club, but perhaps both teams have a little way to go before they can dream of emulating the legends of 1968.
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