Manchester United produced a trademark comeback to beat Braga 3-1 and secure their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Despite the result – which also ensures that United will go through as group winners regardless of the outcome of the next two games – this game will, in all likelihood, never feature in the same category as other inspired comebacks, for United produced the worst 70 minutes of football of their season to date (as anyone watching live football coverage of the match will agree).
In a day of anniversaries – Sir Alex yesterday celebrated 26 years in charge of the club, while De Gea and Ferdinand turned 22 and 34 today – United couldn’t have chosen a more picturesque scenery for their game than Braga’ AXA Stadium, surrounded by quarry on two sides.
Fergie opted for a diamond formation, with De Gea between the posts, Valencia,Evra,Evans and Smalling – playing his first game of the season – at the back, with Nani,Anderson,Giggs and Rooney in midfield, in support of Welbeck and Hernandez.
The diamond quickly disappeared, and Welbeck with it, as the England striker drifted into wilderness on the left hand side of the pitch, while Giggs and Anderson confirmed all their inadequacies when deployed in the middle of the park without a traditional central midfielder alongside them.
United, at times, had the urgency of a pre-season game and were lucky not to fall behind when Eder’s diving header struck the post with 22 minutes gone.
United re-emerged after the break even more disjointed than in the first half and found themselves a goal down inside three minutes, as Evans was judged to have obstructed Custodio in the box.
The Portuguese looked to have run into the Northern Irishman, but the referee awarded a penalty, which Alan buried past De Gea.
Ten minutes later, United weren’t the only ones to roam around without a glimmer of light, as a generator broke down leaving the ground in almost complete darkness for 12 minutes.
The 2,000 traveling fans saw the funny side of it, as chants of “We’re Man United, we’ll play in the dark,” rang around the ground.
When the teams re-emerged from the dressing rooms, Rio Ferdinand replaced Evans before Welbeck and Nani made way for Robin Van Persie and Rafael.
With 11 minutes left, after a quickly taken free kick in their own half, United were level, as Giggs’ floated ball over the Braga defence found RVP who curled his effort past the back-pedalling Beto, who had inexplicably rushed off his line.
Four minutes later United had a penalty of their own, after Rooney was brought down in the box.
The United striker made amend for his miss against Arsenal, sending Beto the wrong way to put United ahead on his 70th Champions League appearance for the club.
There was even time for Javier Hernandez to continue his excellent goal scoring form as he stabbed the ball into the net in added time, after failing in his attempt to walk the ball over the line with the goal at his mercy.
By far not a great performance, but with the round of 16 booked, United won’t care one bit as they can now focus on the league at least until February.