Football: Benfica gift is reward even as Mourinho goes on defensive

Benfica's 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar carrying the ball over the line despite stopping a free kick by Marcus Rashford (not pictured). The error gave Manchester United a 1-0 win in the Champions League Group A game.
Benfica's 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar carrying the ball over the line despite stopping a free kick by Marcus Rashford (not pictured). The error gave Manchester United a 1-0 win in the Champions League Group A game.PHOTO: REUTERS

LISBON • Manchester United fans growing accustomed to 4-0 scorelines more than cagey, safety-first displays, may have to get used to Jose Mourinho's preferred strategy if a dour 1-0 Champions League win at Benfica is anything to go by.

The Group A result left United on the verge of reaching the knockout stages and the manager was happy.

"I never felt we could concede a goal and were solid defensively," he told BT Sport. "Sometimes I feel being good defensively is a crime, but that is a way of getting results.

"We are one point from qualifying and one victory away from winning the group with two games at home to play."

The Red Devils, bereft of a cutting edge up front or creativity in midfield without the injured Paul Pogba, won thanks to a freak goal and a solid defensive display.

Academy graduate Marcus Rashford struck a powerful free kick towards goal in the 64th minute. Goalkeeper Mile Svilar caught the ball, but carried it over the line, giving the visitors all three points.

He did have one good mark to his name: Svilar broke an 18-year record to become the youngest goalkeeper to play in Europe's top club competition. The Belgian teenager, aged 18 years and 52 days, pushed Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas (18 years 118 days) out of the top spot.

United are still unbeaten in both Europe and England. They have 20 points in the Premier League, two behind Manchester rivals City.

Having netted four goals in wins over West Ham, Swansea City, Everton, Burton Albion, CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace, United's last two games against Liverpool and Benfica made those performances look like flat-track bullying.

Romelu Lukaku, the club's only out-and-out striker with Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured, made a dream start to his Old Trafford career by scoring 11 goals in his first 10 games after arriving from Everton.

But the Belgian looked toothless in a dour 0-0 draw at Liverpool followed by the narrow Benfica win.

Injuries to midfielders Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick have hampered Mourinho but his backline has held firm.

"Without any pressure, we knew the goal would arrive," said the manager. "I knew how good the goalkeeper was, I told the players that.

"We had a little bit of a strategy, especially on set-pieces to make him uncomfortable. We put men around him on corners so he could not come out."

The wily Portuguese knows goals like Rashford's will be difficult to come by against stronger rivals.

But with a rock-solid rearguard, he also knows United will usually be in with a chance of winning those games.

REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2017, with the headline 'Benfica gift is reward even as Mourinho goes on defensive'. Print Edition | Subscribe