Ruud van Nistelrooij struck a late winner as Manchester United FC overcame a tough challenge from Portuguese champions SL Benfica to go top of Group D with a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.
There were five minutes remaining when the Dutchman turned the ball in at the far post after Ryan Giggs's corner had ricocheted his way via Rio Ferdinand's head and Nuno Gomes's midriff. In doing so, the striker answered manager Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match call for United's experienced attackers to make the difference on a night where they took the field with a decimated-looking defence.
The absence of key players and a lack of confidence mean the 'Theatre of Dreams' may not be the place of opposition nightmares it used to be, but Van Nistelrooij's goal shows some things do not change. Prior to that, Benfica had looked destined for a draw after Simão's strike cancelled out Giggs's first-half free-kick on a night that served to underline the current uncertainties facing Sir Alex's side.
Benfica coach Ronald Koeman had suggested beforehand that United were "not at their best" and certainly injuries meant a makeshift look to their back line in which two 20-year-olds, Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson, filled the full-back positions. Koeman's men did not take long to threaten Edwin van der Sar's goal. First, Manuel Fernandes picked out Fabrizio Miccoli on the edge of the box and the Italian, stepping outside Ferdinand, rolled a warning shot wide.
Van der Sar busy
Miccoli did not have to wait long for his next opportunity, testing Van der Sar's fingertips with a strike across goal after John O'Shea had clumsily allowed Nuno Gomes's pass to slip through his legs. From the ensuing corner, the Dutch custodian was called into action again to keep out Ricardo Rocha's diving header. When these clubs met in the 1968 final at Wembley, they managed 42 shots between them and while a repeat here was never likely, Benfica were certainly enjoying more sights on goal than most visitors to Old Trafford.
Simão, after exchanging passes with Nuno Gomes, screwed an effort wide in the 21st minute, while United were struggling to make things happen without the suspended Wayne Rooney. Still, on 14 minutes the woodwork came to Benfica's rescue when Van Nistelrooij turned on Bardsley's low centre and flashed a right-footed drive which beat José Moreira but not the bar.
Benfica, save for one or two timely Luisão interceptions, looked comfortable until the 39th minute and Giggs's opener. If United had reason to curse their misfortune with injuries, they certainly enjoyed a slice of luck here as the Welshman's free-kick deflected off the wall and flew past the wrong-footed Moreira.
The second half opened with Cristiano Ronaldo sending a lovely cross into the danger zone which Van Nistelrooij just failed to reach, and the striker then saw a Giggs delivery bounce to safety off his heel after Moreira had missed the ball completely. If that offered United encouragement, they were left stunned when Simão fired Benfica level shortly before the hour with an exquisite free-kick after the Portuguese international had been felled by Alan Smith.
Both sides saw a chance to win the match before Van Nistelrooij did just that. Luisão's careless header across the box landed at the feet of Ronaldo whose resulting shot struck the angle of the post and crossbar via Moreira's fingertips. At the other end, Van der Sar made a low scrambling save from Simão, although it was the keeper's countryman who had the final say.