Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Manchester United stumble through dark to 'surprising' victory

BRAGA, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 07: Robin van Persie of Manchester United celebrates his goal during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between SC Braga and Manchester United at the Estadio AXA on November 7, 2012 in Braga, Portugal. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
BRAGA, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 07: Javier Hernandez of Manchester United scores during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between SC Braga and Manchester United at the Estadio AXA on November 7, 2012 in Braga, Portugal. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
BRAGA, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 07: Javier Hernandez of Manchester United celebrates his goal with Wayne Rooney during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between SC Braga and Manchester United at the Estadio AXA on November 7, 2012 in Braga, Portugal. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Braga 1 Manchester United 3: “We're Man United. We'll play in the dark,” went up the chorus from the enterprising supporters standing on the edge of the granite rock face which was an emblem for how last night turned out to be.

The three goals in 10 minutes which took Manchester United to a barely believable victory – "a little bit surprising" was assistant manager Mike Phelan's understatement – suggested they can bend the course of any match to suit their desire, though the overall impression left by this match proved otherwise, despite the club's qualification to the Champions League knock-out stage.



United looked like a side playing in the dark long before the electricity failed, the stadium was plunged into darkness and the players departed to the dressing room for ten minutes, just before the hour.



Ferguson said something which let there be light and those fabled powers of United recovery came into play yet again, but the sight of Phelan, discussing the game in the shadows late last night when the press room energy supply failed and the interpreter failed to show, summed up the whole occasion.



Ferguson was on a plane home by then, bound for Glasgow where his wife, Cathy, is mourning her sister, and in his absence, Phelan admitted the power cut had helped. "We weren't doing anything in the game before that," he said. "With the lights going out and the rain and a quick substitution, it changed the evening for us."



The United manager had actually begun the night talking to television crews about matching Liverpool's five European Cups. "I get really frustrated when I think about the opportunities we have had to win it but you can't be greedy," he said – the kind of talk he generally reserves for the semi finals and finals, when the big one is in sight. But these past few months on the continent have been a pitifully pale imitation of the autumn of 2007 – the last time United won their first five games of the competition, a springboard to that rainy night in Moscow when they vanquished Chelsea. Yes, Phelan admitted in a way that Ferguson would not, it was "fair to say" that qualification has come without them hitting the heights.



Yet, with the injuries which have diminished his defence behind him – Chris Smalling returned for his first football of the season last night and Phil Jones is back in training on Monday – United have the welcome benefit of being able to focus all effort so early on the Premier League. "There's a chance to look at our youngsters on this stage and arena, while we must give credit to [European] competition," Phelan said of the forthcoming trip to Galatasaray, who will be hungry after winning 3-1 at Cluj last night.



There will also be time to assess how to prepare for the testing opposition because while United's opening here was crisp and precise, if untroubling for the home goalkeeper, it did not take long for the old defensive frailties to show themselves once again.



Twice in the opening 20 minutes, Jonny Evans was not up to the Portuguese challenge; undone first by the pace of Ruben Michel's flat pass behind him which allowed Braga's single individual talent, the tall, Guinea-Bissau born striker Eder, to race beyond and fire a low cross, harmless as it transpired. The same striker – who was discovered by Andre Villas-Boas at Academica – stooped ahead of Evans into a header from Hugo Viana's cross which thumped the base of a despairing David de Gea's post.



So the goal which gave Braga their lead was not unexpected, four minutes after the interval. Wayne Rooney conceded possession and allowed a rapid clearance to Custodio, whose progress into the box was clumsily halted by Evans. Alan's ensuing penalty was sent high and powerfully into De Gea's net.



The lights went out eight minutes later with Rooney in possession when darkness fell. It was the end of Evans' night. Carrying the groin injury he sustained when conceding the penalty, he gave way to Rio Ferdinand when light was restored.



Short of match time, Nani felt a hamstring and left. Ferguson threw Robin van Persie on, too, in place of Danny Welbeck, and saw the game turn his side's way in the unyielding rain.



Van Persie required quarter of an hour on the field to find an equalizer. Ryan Giggs took the ball from a quick free-kick on the right and fed the Dutch striker who clipped the ball in magisterially from just outside the box, despatching it in the split second that the goalkeeper Beto realised that he had advanced too rapidly and made to retreat.



Giggs was at the hub of United's second, supplying Javier Hernandez with a fine ball which allowed him to force an excellent save from Beto. Rooney, following up, was fouled by Coelho as he made to pounce on the ball, and put Saturday's penalty miss against Arsenal behind him from the spot.



By the end, Braga's defence was shot but the manner of Hernandez's goal – be virtually tackled it into the net after his shot was cleared off the line and back to him by Douglao – summed up the bizarre turn of events.



"We're the mighty Man United and we're going to Wembley," rang out the anthem. This kind of thinking is wishful.



Man of match Micael.



Match rating 7/10.



Referee F Brych (Ger).



Attendance 19,015.

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