United line up before kick-off.

Portuguese trip boosts Reds youngsters

Manchester United have enjoyed a hugely rewarding stay in Portugal as members of the Under-23s and Under-18s squads followed up a training camp in the Algarve with a friendly against Benfica in Lisbon.

In a trip designed to replicate the first-team experience, the youngsters had demanding training sessions and tactical work at their Vale do Lobo base, while also taking part in team-bonding events. There was a spot of beach-volleyball on Friday, followed by a foot-golf tournament and a specially-arranged dinner in Lisbon tonight (Monday).

There have been so many tangible benefits to spending time away from storm-hit Manchester, as the players recharge their batteries and refresh their minds for the remainder of the season. The Under-23s remain near the top of Premier League 2 Division 2, while the Under-18s have an FA Youth Cup quarter-final against Wigan Athletic to look forward to.

United Under-23s train in the Algarve.
Neil Wood puts the players through their paces out in Portugal.

Lead coach Neil Wood has been keen to integrate more of the teenagers who will be stepping up into his squad next term, and prepare them for the rigours of men’s football. An old-versus-young game in training illustrated the competitive edge that was encouraged, and the enthusiasm for the work was apparent, with a free-kick competition at the end of Saturday’s session pitting coaches and players against each other.

Angel Gomes had linked up with the group in the early part of their stay, before joining Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad in Spain. “It’s nice to get away from the Aon Training Complex sometimes, when you’re going into the same environment every day,” Wood told us. “I noticed on the opening day that spirits were really high and Angel came to train for the first two days and it just lifted it to a really high level.”

The facilities were outstanding and the setting ideal as the wind on the first couple of days disappeared and bright sunshine arrived to provide an even greater boost, away from the work on the pitch. Dave Kelly, the senior sports scientist, pointed out the scientific element to the obvious benefits of being in such a pleasant environment.

“It’s blowing a gale back home,” he said. “So, with the sunshine, we have some positive effects on the players. It can help increase performance. Some of our lads are from abroad and are predisposed to low levels of vitamin D when they come to the UK because they are used to the sun in their countries. It’s an essential vitamin which is produced by being in the sun and can increase levels of fitness, muscle strength and stamina.

“Another key benefit of coming here is the recovery of muscle tiredness because the warm weather makes them more pliable. The lads are in a better frame of mind too and, from my perspective, the warm weather is a key part of our Under-23s programme. It’s a win-win for the coaching staff preparing the team and for me, from a physical conditioning perspective.”

Teden Mengi drives the ball in foot-golf.
Teden Mengi takes part in the foot-golf session near the team's hotel.
The attitude of the players impressed everybody, including assistant-coach Quinton Fortune, who was also keen to emphasise how lucky they are to be able to experience such trips as teenagers.

“They’re coming out with smiles on their faces,” said the former United midfielder. “We’re so fortunate to come away from Manchester and the attitude of the players in all the sessions has been brilliant.

“I can see the difference in their body language when they’re jogging to the training pitch with more energy. Their attitude to training has been spot on.

“We are very fortunate to come away like this and have to enjoy it. I try to remind the players how fortunate they are. Not many teams get to do this. We’ll keep them grounded because they will enjoy the conditions but, at the same time, work hard.”

Inside the United dressing room.
Shirts hanging in United's dressing room at the Benfica Campus.

A coach ride across the country to the capital preceded the game with glamorous opposition in the shape of Benfica, United’s opponents when we first lifted the European Cup back in 1967.

The Portuguese giants hosted the friendly at their plush Academy complex, fielding a mixture of their B team and Under-23s, and it was the perfect way to further enhance the trip.

“One or two have dropped out with knocks so we might have to play some out of position and look at different formations, which can only be a good thing,” Wood told us before the match. “If there is a chance to change the system a little bit, we’ll have a play with the game and try to learn from it.

“I see it as more of an extension of the training really, applying the work out here in the game and I’d rather they make mistakes and try to do it the right way. We’re trying to get the style right from all this practice.”

The fog lifted at the Benfica Campus to allow an 11:20 GMT kick-off, with the home side going ahead after 13 minutes, as Serginho slipped a finish past Ondrej Mastny.

Charlie McCann.
Charlie McCann after the game against Benfica's B side on Monday.

The young Reds equalised through Aidan Barlow, who gobbled up an opportunity after Aliou Traore closed the defence down and Largie Ramazani successfully challenged keeper Fabio Duarte to set up the chance.

Only a fine goalline clearance by David Zec kept out a Ramazani lob while Joao Borges headed over for Benfica at the other end. Wood made six changes at the break to give all of his fit players some game time, as promised, and the more youthful line-up continued to hold their own. However, soon after Barlow fired a free-kick wide, Tomas Azevedo flashed the ball past substitute keeper Dermot Mee in the 70th minute to regain the lead for the Portuguese side. 

Hannibal Mejbri was close to curling home an equaliser but the hosts claimed a 2-1 victory, even if the scoreline was of no great importance in the context of a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding trip.

MATCH DETAILS

Benfica 2 United 1

Scorers:
Serginho 13, Azevedo 70 | Barlow 25 

United: Mastny (Mee 46); Neville, Mengi (c) (McCann 46), Devine, McGhee; Galbraith, Levitt (Mejbri 46); Barlow, Helm (Wellens 46), Traore (Haygarth 46); Ramazani (Stanley 46).

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