By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
A Champions League campaign described as a “bumpy ride” by Sir Alex Ferguson took another wrong turn on Tuesday night with a 2-2 draw against Benfica that leaves Manchester United requiring a point from their final group game to reach the knockout stages.
United must avoid defeat when they face Basel in Switzerland on December 7 to secure their progress from what was welcomed as an easy group when the draw was made in August. It is exactly the scenario Ferguson warned against in his pre-match programme notes.
It also means that United are likely to to finish second in Group C and now face the prospect of taking on the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Inter in the last 16. Benfica will be guaranteed top spot in if they defeat pointless Romanian side Otelul Galati in the final round of matches, irrespective of United's result in Basel.
It is a mess entirely of their own making. United's two victories have both come against Galati while sloppy defending has resulted in home draws with both Benfica and Basel in a campaign that has, thus far, lacked any rhythm.
Ferguson could hardly have asked for a better group and that is perhaps the problem. Desperate to keep on Manchester City's coat-tails in the Premier League, European competition has almost been regarded as an afterthought for the 2011 Champions League runners-up.
Gloomy outlook | United face a tough path in Europe after the Benfica draw
The United boss is yet to field a side representing something close to his strongest available starting line-up in the competition this season. His apparent presumptuousness has seemingly rubbed off on the players, who produced another casual defensive display at Old Trafford on Tuesday and were punished by Benfica. They badly missed suspended captain Nemanja Vidic, who played a key role in the five consecutive clean sheets that preceded the visit of the Portuguese side.
Benfica took the lead in the third minute when Phil Jones turned the ball into his own net as he tried to clear Nicolas Gaitan's delivery from the left. It was a touch unfortunate but it set the tone for a nervous defensive performance.
Although United hit back with goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Fletcher, there was always a sense of vulnerability about their defending, especially given the verve with which Benfica launched counter-attacks.
"Having guided United to three finals in the last four years, Ferguson deserves the benefit of the doubt despite making it far more difficult than it ever needed to be"
The punishment will likely extend beyond the clash against Basel. Even if United do scrape through, as expected, they will probably now face a harder path to next May's final in Munich than would have been expected.
It was a mistake Arsenal made last year when they finished second in a relatively easy group. The Gunners were then drawn against Barcelona in the last 16 and dumped out by the eventual Champions League winners.
Ferguson tried to put a brave face on United's predicament by arguing that, for a side with ambitions of reaching the final, playing against the European big guns at some point in the competition is inevitable.
Having guided United to three finals in the last four years, Ferguson deserves the benefit of the doubt, assuming his side do qualify, despite making it far more difficult than it ever needed to be.
But the Scot will know that United are not playing well, that vast improvement will be needed if the Red Devils are to challenge Europe's elite this term. Without the injured Wayne Rooney, they ran out of ideas and tightened up in the last 20 minutes as the crowd grew edgy and Benfica dropped deep defensively.
United's manager and his players seem to be taking for granted that the worst case scenario will not happen next month: a defeat to Basel that would see United exit at the first hurdle for the first time since 2005.
It is not a disaster for United as their fate lies in their own hands. But while Benfica can relax a little knowing qualification is secured, United face a difficult trip to Switzerland to finish the job. Even then, the biggest punishment for their lacklustre Champions League campaign will probably be felt in February with a second round tie against one of the European big guns.
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