When the draw was made for the group stage of the Champions League, few people would have thought that Manchester United would finish anywhere except at the top of the pile. Group C saw the Red Devils bracketed with Portuguese powerhouse Benfica, Swiss champions Basel and newcomers Otelul Galati from Romania. Yet such was the perceived disparity in class between the English champions and the rest of the pack that everyone believed it would be business as usual for Man United in these fixtures.
However, the match is played on the pitch, not on paper as they say. Man United learned the truthfulness of those words when their fixtures proved to be far from easy. In their first match, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men played away to Benfica. This fixture was always imagined to be the toughest of all Man United’s matches and so it was. The Red Devils fell behind in the match due to some expert forward play by Oscar Cardozo, but despite a strong display from Benfica in the middle of the park, Man United managed to snatch an equalizer through the evergreen Welsh wing wizard Ryan Giggs.
Man United’s second match, this time at home to Basel also finished in a draw but was infinitely more disappointing that the first fixture. Man United went 2-0 up through a quick fire brace from Danny Welbeck and maintained the two goal lead for the first half. Despite the lead, Basel had wasted no less than three glorious chances to score in the first 45 minutes and could count themselves unlucky not to have gotten at least one goal for all their efforts. In the second half, Basel’s finishing became much more clinical. Fabian Frei pulled a goal back on 58 minutes and just two minutes later, Alexander Frei (no relation to Fabian) brought Basel level. However there was much more drama to come. On 76 minutes Antonio Valencia, playing out of position at right back, brought down Streller in the area and Alexander Frei stepped up to score his second and Basel’s third of the match. Shocked Man United supporters looked on in disbelief. It was left to new signing Ashley Young to score an injury time equalizer and spare Man United’s blushes in this fixture.
With back to back fixtures against Otelul Galati, the supposed whipping boys of the group Man United were expected to pick up all six points. While Sir Alex Ferguson’s men did manage to win both games, it was far from easy. Playing for pride, the Romanians put Man United under sustained pressure during both fixtures before eventually succumbing to a 2-0 loss to the Red Devils at home and away.
With qualification still on the line, Man United hosted Benfica for their fifth fixture in this season’s UEFA Champions League. Man United got off to the worst possible start by conceding an own goal via Phil Jones, but goals from Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Fletcher put Man United 2-1 up during the second half. However a poor clearance from new goalkeeper David de Gea saw Pablo Aimar rifle home and put Benfica ahead of Man United in the standings. Both teams have nine points, but Benfica are top due to a better head to head record. With Basel beating Galati and moving onto eight points themselves, there is everything left for Man United to play for in the final round of fixtures.