Manchester United win but Lukaku drought goes on
Jose Mourinho’s team are just one point away from the last-16
Manchester United are a technically point away from the Champions League knockout phase with this fourth win from four Group A matches. This is a fine position but José Mourinho will not have aided the struggling Romelu Lukaku’s confidence after insisting Daley Blind take United’s second penalty of the night.
On 78 minutes Marcus Rashford’s fine burst claimed the spot-kick but when Lukaku stood over it at first he did not give way. This caused Mourinho annoyance before, after a brief intervention from Ander Herrera, Blind did step up to smack the ball home.
Now, Mourinho made a gesture to again signal his disquiet, as he did via the shush to camera at the close of Saturday’s win over Tottenham Hotspur.
Mourinho made six changes from Saturday’s win over Tottenham Hotspur. Scott McTominay was given a full debut in the competition and only his second ever start in United colours. Also in were Anthony Martial, Matteo Darmian, Blind, Jesse Lingard, and Juan Mata.
The eighteen-year-old Mile Svilar was again Benfica’s goalkeeper despite his mistake allowing Rashford’s winner in the reverse game in Lisbon a fortnight ago. Rui Vitoria’s pointless side were the same as then apart from the suspended Luisão being replaced by Jardel.
Benfica threatened first, via a corner won by Douglas off Blind, although David De Gea gathered it with ease. Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 had Lingard as the No10, splitting Mata and Martial right and left. The latter, the scorer of Saturday’s winner, claimed an early free-kick after being chopped down by Rúben Dias.
Benfica were proving the sharper. One move was simple to execute as Diogo Gonçalves flipped the ball left to Álex Grimaldo and the left-back’s cross required a block.
Then came some magic from Martial. The Frenchman’s lightning feet bedazzled Douglas, turning him inside then out, before the right-back went to ground with him.
The referee pointed to the spot despite the away side’s protestations to the official. Now, though, there was a moment of redemption for Svilar as he dived to his right to save Martial’s poor attempt of a penalty.
Within moments of the miss De Gea displayed how superb a No1 he is. Gonçalves cut in from the right and unloaded a shot that had the Spaniard flinging himself high to his left to stop the goal.
United appeared to have a fair shout for a second penalty when Ljubomir Fejas looked to have taken down Mata after McTominay played a one-two but this time the referee was unmoved. Mourinho’s men were hardly in second gear and took until the half hour point to create an opening for Romelu Lukaku.
Lingard sprayed the ball right and the Belgian strode forward and forced a save from Svilar. Within seconds Lukaku was again put in but after rising to a header, he could not direct it.
Mourinho’s plea for fans to make Old Trafford more of bear pit was not reaping dividends. The home support was muted again and Benfica’s travelling contingent sang loudly throughout the opening half. Martial was the pick for United and did his best to spark some serious noise from the United faithful. Another of those mazy dribbles took him clean through but, disappointingly, he overran the ball.
By the interval this had been the United of recent outings: patchy, disjointed, searching in vain for a high gear. Still, as is the way with Mourinho’s sides, they had a lead: Nemanja Matic’s 30-yard shot pinged off Svilar’s left post, hit the unfortunate goalkeeper’s shoulder and went in. It might have been two but the misfiring Lukaku failed to finish when clear in on Svilar, and only a corner that amounted to nothing was yielded.
For the second half Lingard, who had taken a knock, was replaced by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose first contribution was to hit a regulation pass straight out of play.
United continued to perform below par and Lukaku looked in need of a goal. He was lucky to be awarded a foul when a first touch had the ball bouncing hard off him before being scythed down.
McTominay was turning in an assured display, one of the few United players operating at or near potential. Martial, another one, was always available yet his touch seemed to be deteriorating. First a left foot shot went awry, then he over-elaborated and, again, ran the ball out. Raúl Jiménez was the opposite when burning past Chris Smalling and forcing De Gea to save to his right before on 64 minutes he hit the right post.
Mourinho took off Mata to stiffen midfield with Herrera, and Rashford’s 15-minute cameo on his 20th birthday featured his winning of the penalty. Again, though, the conversation will be all about Mourinho and why he denied Lukaku the chance to break what is now a six-game drought.