Manchester United legend Paddy Crerand, 78, sat beneath Benfica’s main stand an hour before United took on the Portuguese giants in their Uefa Champions League Group A game on Wednesday.
“We beat them 5-1 over here in 1966,” Crerand said, smiling. “It was the greatest Manchester United performance I have ever been part of, largely thanks to George Best, who scored four. He was 19. I’d never seen anything like it. He was called ‘El Beatle’ in the Portuguese press the following day.
“Benfica held up the kick off of the second leg by fifteen minutes so that Eusebio could be presented with the 1965 European Player of the Year award. They knew they’d have a game on their hands against United and they delayed the kick off because they wanted to get the crowd at it.
“The same crowd had been holding five fingers up at our coach and beating on the windows as we edged towards the stadium. They thought they were going to beat us 5-0. That wound me up even more. ‘Not a chance in hell,’ I thought. They expected to beat United and who could blame them when they had a European home record that read: Played 19, Won 18, Drawn 1, Lost 0?”
Crerand, who still attends every United game, was happy to reminisce.
“Matt Busby described it as his finest hour,” Crerand added. “They didn’t need to do it, but the Benfica lads took us out that night and showed us round some tavernas in Lisbon. A few of them could speak English and I thought they were great lads. I would have been hiding if I were them.”
As Crerand spoke on a wet Lisbon evening 51 years later, tickets remained on open sale for the game and the crowd of 57,684 in the 65,000 capacity stadium.
Two defeats in Benfica’s opening two Champions League games, the second a 5-0 hammering by Basel, dampened the mood as much as the weather.
As United’s former Benfica players Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof hugged their former teammates in the tunnel before kick off, Benfica’s eagle mascot flew around the stadium and the club’s anthem was sung with gusto too.
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United’s Under 19s team and their manager Nicky Butt watched in the stands, satisfied after a 2-2 draw against their more experienced counterparts earlier in the day. The young players hoped to learn more from their seniors, but there wasn’t much to learn from a slow, insipid first half. United were caught offside seven times and only Matic played to an acceptable standard. Jose Mourinho’s side missed the injured Paul Pogba and Marouanne Fellaini and the 2,650 travelling fans deserved better.
The second half saw an improvement. Marcus Rashford sparkled on the left, Antonio Valencia was a one man right wing and the Ecuadorian was on the receiving end of a fine forward pass from Daley Blind.
United were dominant, but Benfica goalkeeper’s Mile Svilar, at 18 the youngest goalkeeper to play in the Champions League, should have stopped Rashford’s 64th minute free-kick minute – and not once it had crossed the line.
Rashford hobbled off soon after, with Mourinho hoping he wouldn’t be added to an already significant injury list. His injury didn’t look too serious as he limped out of the stadium.
Three straight wins should be enough to see United through to the knockout stage, while Benfica’s three defeats leave them with a grim task ahead of their fourth game at Old Trafford in two weeks, though their fans remained supportive to the end, even after captain Luisao was sent off in time added on. Benfica didn’t register a single shot on target.
It was also United’s second successive Champions League away win. This time last year, United lost their opening two Europa League away games. There has been a significant improvement as Mourinho shapes his side, who kept a ninth clean sheet from 13 matches, and the Portuguese said: “I feel that sometimes defending properly is seen as a crime. But it is not. We controlled the game because we defended properly.”
United are favourites for another win at Huddersfield Town on Saturday, but they remain a work in progress, some way from being a team capable of going away to the best in Europe and destroying them, as they did with Crerand et al in 1966.