So for Benfica to recover from conceding an early Paul Scholes goal to lead by the 34th minute through Geovanni's diving header and Beto's long-range effort - deflected off Scholes - and then hold on to reach the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 1994/95, meant the pre-match hype was justified, especially as this result ends United's incredible nine-year run of continuous progress from the group stage.
Yet, even in the fervent atmosphere of the Luz, the clue to Benfica's win came not from the record books but the coach on the sidelines, for the Portuguese champions defended with the assurance of Ronald Koeman in his pomp. The Brazilian centre-back partnership of Luisão and Anderson were totemic in the second half, and calm with it.
Luisão took on the task of subduing Wayne Rooney, who was eventually moved back into midfield not long after a superbly-timed tackle cut short a run on goal. He also dominated in the air, while Anderson made sure Ruud van Nistelrooij did not take his tally of UEFA Champions League goals even closer to 50.
Anderson described the victory as a collective achievement. He said: "Van Nistelrooij is a great player, very quick. I was able to do it because all the defensive line were amazing. Benfica played above themselves tonight and this victory gives us great confidence."
Luisão added: "It was a humbling victory. Benfica are becoming a better team with every game and played with great authority. It is true we had many important players out, but we played as a team and the lads who came in for the big names played great."
Of the absentees, the biggest was captain Simão, but the mercurial Geovanni came in on the left and chose last night to perform to the peak of his talents. However, it was a mutual effort, especially in the second half, and both central defenders identified a further factor. "The atmosphere was fantastic," Luisão said. Anderson agreed: "The fans were crucial for us, their support galvanised us."
At long last, those fans were able to celebrate a team back among Europe's top 16. United's Portuguese assistant manager Carlos Queiroz was generous in praise for his compatriots, saying: "We started the game by causing them great difficulties, Benfica overcame them and they deserve to go through."
Koeman's side may still have much to do if they are to enter the hall of fame with Benfica's 1960s vintages, but in eliminating Manchester United they have at least one achievement to their name that even Eusébio and co could not muster.
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