Manchester United FC avenged one of the most painful defeats of their recent history as Louis Saha's second-half goal secured a 1-0 win over SL Benfica at the Estádio da Luz.
It was here in Lisbon last December that United's UEFA Champions League campaign came to a premature halt with a 2-1 reverse but tonight United fulfilled the prediction of manager Sir Alex Ferguson that a repeat was out of the question. After surviving a scare or two in the first half, Saha struck on the hour to keep United three points clear of Celtic FC – winners over FC København - at the top of Group F with a maximum six points.
The game was slow in coming to life. After bookings for Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, Georgios Karagounis sent in the first shot of note, straight at Edwin van der Sar on eleven minutes, after Paulo Jorge had dispossessed Gabriel Heinze. Two minutes later, Quim had an uncomfortable moment at the other end when he failed to hold Cristiano Ronaldo's long-range effort but Saha was beaten to the rebound by Luisão.
Nuno Gomes denied
That was as good as it got in the first period for United. Playing with Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo either side of lone striker Saha, only Ronaldo – his every touch jeered by the Benfica fans – offered any threat to the home defence. It was left to Benfica to inject energy into proceedings. Paulo Jorge caught United centre-back Nemanja Vidić napping and Karagounis fed Nuno Gomes whose low drive from the edge of the box was turned around the post by Van der Sar. Paulo Jorge then fired over after Simão squared a free-kick to him, but when Karagounis did find the net via the underside of the bar, referee Frank De Bleeckere had already blown for a foul by Konstantinos Katsouranis on Ronaldo.
United started the second half in more positive mood and created an early opening as Carrick shot low at Quim after a one-two with Scholes. However, the breakthrough, when it did come, followed a breakaway. Scholes supplied Ronaldo who carried the ball into Benfica territory before playing it to Saha. Out on the right-hand corner of the penalty area, the No9 stepped into the box and unleashed a shot which deflected off Anderson before looping past Quim and into the far corner. With three UEFA Champions League goals this season, the responsibility of replacing Ruud van Nistelrooy appears to be sitting comfortably on the shoulders of Saha.
Second goal elusive
With confidence boosted, United made further opportunities but Ronaldo and Rooney failed to test Quim after getting a sight of goal. Benfica, with Nuno Assis and Fabrizio Miccoli introduced into the action, struggled to produce a response. Simão's free-kick found the roof of the net but a second goal looked more likely at the opposite end. With 78 minutes on the clock it almost came when Carrick broke into space down the right and crossed to Saha whose near-post shot went wide. Then, with four minutes remaining, United very nearly doubled their advantage as Quim blocked a Heinze free-kick and as the ball ran loose, denied both substitute Darren Fletcher and Carrick from point-blank range.