Javier Hernandez saves Manchester United after defensive shortcomings against Braga
Published 24/10/2012 | 08:48
Manchester United 3 Braga 2: Since lifting the European Cup in Moscow four years ago, Manchester United have had an awful lot of trouble with teams beginning with B. They have been knocked out of the competition in successive seasons by Barcelona (twice), Bayern Munich and Basle – and last night they came close to embarrassment against Braga.
The scoreline and their recovery from a two-goal deficit will suggest this was one of Old Trafford's "great European nights" but although they are now almost Frankel-like certainties to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson would know that Europe has hardly trembled at their progress.
This was the eighth time in a dozen matches this season that his side had fallen behind. That United have lost only two is a testament to their resilience but they cannot afford too many repetitions.
"I cannot understand our defending," Ferguson said. "We are making it difficult for ourselves. I have been saying for some time that our forward play keeps getting us through. We had a real momentum to our game in the second half and we produced a result that most people would not have expected."
This is only partially true. The United comeback has been one of the great themes of their years under Ferguson and, once Javier Hernandez headed home the first of his two goals, it was always likely Braga would crack. Whether a member of the Champions League elite would have done is a very different matter.
"I cannot get to the bottom of our defending at all," said Ferguson. "The goals we are losing, they are all different types. We are certainly not getting good starts to games that's for sure.
There will be several things to sort before they travel to Chelsea on Sunday. Shinji Kagawa, who was unable to stamp his quality on proceedings, went off at half time with a knee injury and, although he will have it assessed, he is unlikely to make the journey to London. Neither will Anders Lindegaard, who injured his thumb in training.
If there had been complacency after the somewhat unconvincing, wins over Galatasaray and Cluj, Ferguson had tried his best to dispel it with programme notes that warned that, however straightforward Group H appeared, the Champions League still possessed a capacity to surprise. BATE Borisov had beaten Bayern Munich 3-1 in the previous round. "And let's be honest," he said. "How many of you know where Borisov is?"
Braga is in northern Portugal and within 90 seconds they were ahead. When former Newcastle midfielder Hugo Viana was given far too much time to deliver a fine, deep cross into the heart of the United area, the 33-year-old Brazilian Alan, whose goal had knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League last year, rose past Alexander Buttner to head it home.
If that was a slap in the face, what followed was a punch to the stomach. Eder, from the old Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, brilliantly turned Michael Carrick, who was to prove a very makeshift centre-half, and delivered a low cross that Alan ran between Buttner and Jonny Evans to slide home.
United may be Ming-vase fragile in defence but Ferguson still possesses some often irresistible options in attack. It helped that Braga's left-back, Elderson, did not bother to mark Hernandez, who had only Beto to beat when he met Kagawa's cross.
Just after the hour, Manchester United were level as Robin van Persie's corner struck Carrick on the back and looped towards Evans. The defender took one massive swipe at the ball, missed but saw it come back to him off Alan's shins, had another go and scored. There was only one way this match was going to end and it came when Tom Cleverley sent in a cross that found Hernandez who was left unmarked to score his second.
The last time Manchester United had overturned a two-goal deficit to win a Champions League fixture had been in the 1999 semi-final against Juventus in the Stadio delle Alpi. That was a portent for what was to follow in the final against Bayern Munich but Ferguson would know that, despite the chants of "Glory, Glory Man United" that flowed from the Stretford End last night, this was not a performance that wins European Cups.
Booked: Braga Custodio, Elderson.
Man of the match Alan.
Possession: Man United 59%. Braga 41%.
Attempts on target: Man United 4. Braga 3.
Referee M Mazic (Serb).