Benfica test will show where United stand among the elite

Manchester United's players attend a training session at the Luz stadium in Lisbon on Oct 17, 2017, on the eve of the Uefa Champions League group A football match SL Benfica vs Manchester United.
Manchester United's players attend a training session at the Luz stadium in Lisbon on Oct 17, 2017, on the eve of the Uefa Champions League group A football match SL Benfica vs Manchester United. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON • Manchester United's Champions League encounter with Portuguese side Benfica today represents a resumption of hostilities with foes who have long provided a yardstick for their footballing credentials in Europe.

Benfica, famously, were the team United defeated at Wembley in 1968 to become the first English side to win the European Cup.

But Benfica have also engineered some of their continental low moments, most notably in 2005, when the Lisbon giants condemned Alex Ferguson's team to a humbling group stage exit with a 2-1 home win on the final match day.

This season, the tables appear to have been turned.

United have comfortably won their opening Group A games. Benfica have lost both of theirs and were condemned to a record 5-0 defeat by Basel in their last outing.

For United manager Jose Mourinho, however, they remain his team's principal adversaries.

"The defeat suffered in Switzerland didn't change my opinion that Benfica are our main opponents in the group stage," he said.

The teams first met in early 1966 when the Red Devils were embarking upon their first European Cup campaign since Matt Busby's "Busby Babes" were decimated by the 1958 Munich air disaster.

After United won the first leg of their quarter-final 3-2 at Old Trafford, Benfica were torn apart at home, with an early George Best brace setting Busby's side on their way to a thumping 5-1 win.

Two years later, beneath the Wembley floodlights, Best would prove to be the tormentor again.

With the score 1-1 in extra time, he ran onto Alex Stepney's kick, rounded goalkeeper Jose Henrique and tucked United in front.

Further goals by Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton - his second of the match - completed an emotional victory, 10 years on from Munich.

Benfica would have to wait 37 years for a shot at revenge that they duly took in 2005.

Ferguson then vowed: "This club has always risen from difficult situations and we will again."

The Scot was true to his word.

His side beat Benfica home and away in the group phase the next season en route to the semi-finals.

However, it was Benfica who came out on top when the teams last met, progressing to the knockout rounds in 2011-12.

Six years on, with United appearing to be on the up again under Mourinho, a new chapter in the rivalry awaits to be written today.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BENFICA V MAN UNITED

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Benfica test will show where United stand among the elite'. Print Edition | Subscribe