Manchester United 2 Benfica 2: Sir Alex Ferguson felt his side were undone by two “freakish” moments after Manchester United were held to a 2-2 draw by Benfica in last night's Champions League clash at Old Trafford.
United's hopes of qualifying for the last 16 will go down to the final round of Group C games after their Portuguese visitors moved into the driving seat at the summit thanks to an unexpected point.
United fell behind early on through Phil Jones' own goal, but equalised on the half-hour through Dimitar Berbatov and then went in front through Darren Fletcher.
But Pablo Aimar secured a point for Benfica after goalkeeper David De Gea's poor clearance caused chaos in the United defence, to leave Ferguson's men needing at least a point from their trip to Basle next month to make it into the knockout stage.
Ferguson said: “It was very disappointing. A bit freakish to be honest with you — an own goal and then a bad kick out from David De Gea.
“The passback could have been a little bit better but David should just have played it into the stands.
“But we played so well tonight, made some good chances and played some good football.
“I've no fault with my players at all — we deserved better.
“It's a cruel game at times and it was cruel for us tonight.”
Ferguson felt the early own goal — coming after just three minutes — unsettled his players.
“We had a bad start and it takes the wind from your sails a little bit, but once they got into the game they played really well and we should have been maybe two or three up at half-time,” he said.
United now look unlikely to top the group, with Benfica expected to pick up three points from their final game against Romanian minnows Otelul Galati.
And Ferguson's men must avoid defeat in their tricky trip to Basle — with the Swiss side just one point behind and hungry to cause a major upset.
“It's going to be a hard game,” said Ferguson of the December 7 showdown.
“The chips are down for us but I have every confidence in my team.”
To make matters worse, United's best player last night, Michael Carrick, will miss the final game through suspension.
After five successive clean sheets, it came as a hammer blow for United to concede after only three minutes.
That the ball should be turned into the net by one of their own just made the pain more acute.
Benfica had already made a bright start when Nicolas Gaitan found himself enough space to whizz over a low cross that flicked off Patrice Evra.
Jones was well placed to clear, only to stick out a foot and turn the ball past stranded goalkeeper De Gea.
Seven days after being likened to Franco Baresi by England manager Fabio Capello, this was the other side of the footballing coin for the 19-year-old, who looked somewhat shell-shocked as the visitors celebrated their good fortune.
With Wayne Rooney missing due to the hip problem that kept him out of training yesterday and free-scoring Mexican Javier Hernandez on the bench, it was suddenly a major test for those Ferguson had called upon.
Initially it looked as though they would not rise to the challenge.
With Bruno Cesar, who went close with a 20-yard drive, and Gaitan pulling the strings, a second for Benfica looked a distinct possibility.
It was a Nani free-kick and Ashley Young's snap-shot that gave United the impetus to launch their fightback.
Leading the attack, Berbatov had not scored in Europe since his brace against Celtic in October 2008. If ever the £30.75million Bulgarian was going to prove his worth, this needed to be it.
And when Nani curled over an excellent cross on the half-hour, Berbatov finally delivered, touching his header into the far corner.
The momentum was maintained after the restart.
Fabio was denied by Artur after a forceful run from Jones before Evra delivered the brilliant cross that Fletcher met after making a perfectly-timed run. Artur denied the Scot's first effort but from the rebound Fletcher had a tap-in.
Old Trafford breathed a collective sigh of relief. But those who felt the hard work had been done were in for a nasty shock as De Gea's weak clearance allowed Cesar to charge into the United box.
Though his cross was blocked by Rio Ferdinand, Aimar gobbled up the rebound to secure a point.