Javier Hernandez netted twice, including the winner fifteen minutes from time, as United showed all their well renowned flaws but, at times, produced some brilliant football against a very well organised Braga side.
If anybody might still be wondering whether footballers have learnt something from the London Olympics, they ought to watch United to find the answer, for Ferguson’s side have become masters in approaching matches in the same fashion Mo Farah approaches a 5,000m or 10,000 race – extremely slow starts followed by an inevitable surge through the pack to gain the lead.
With Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra rested, Michael Carrick shifted alongside Jonny Evans in defense, with Alex Buttner, making his European debut, and Rafael, clocking up a century of games in a United shirt, as full-backs. A diamond midfield included Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney, with Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez up-front (you can vote for who the best Man Utd footballer is (e.g. Robin van Persie), on FootballTop.com).
Portuguese sides have never left Old Trafford victorious, but Braga did their best to put the record straight within the first twenty minutes, as they looked to take full advantage of yet another slow start from the home side.
With less than 120 seconds played the hosts were ahead as former Newcastle midfielder Hugo Viana swung in a cross that was headed in at the near post by Alan, after the Braga captain had got ahead of Buttner. The goal meant that United have now conceded a goal within the first 15 minutes in their last six games in the Champions League.
United were rattled by the early goal and failed to produce anything substantial in the early exchanges of the game and were to be punished again after 20 minutes as Eder turned Michael Carrick over on the byline before delivering an inviting ball to Alan who, unmarked in the middle of the box, side-footed the ball past De Gea to give Braga a two-goal lead.
The home team responded almost immediately this time, Kagawa picking up the pieces after Van Persie had been brought down at the edge of the box, before delivering a sumptuous ball over the Braga defenders, upon which Javier Hernandez launched at full stretch to halve the gap for his club.
Three minutes later Van Persie fired narrowly wide after having been played through by Rooney and the two combined again 120 seconds later, with Hernandez unable to convert the Dutchman’s cross from close range.
United had a goal wrongly chalked off ten minutes before half-time, when Kagawa was judged to have been offside as he pulled the ball back across the box for Hernandez. The Japanese made way for Nani at the break, a decision forced by United’s obvious lack of width on the pitch and by the fact that he had picked up a knock in the first half.
The sooner United find a way to accomodate the former Borussia Dortmund man in their schemes the better, for the little Japanese is too talented to be wasted roaming around the pitch in areas not suited to his ability.
United started the second half with a complete different approach to the first half, with Van Persie testing Beto’s reflexes with a powerful free-kick eight minutes after the restart.
The Dutchman was in the thick of the action once again ten minutes later as his corner was flicked on by Carrick and converted into the net by Jonny Evans. The Northern Irishman failed to make any contact with his right foot, before slotting the ball past Beto with his left to register his second goal in three games and his first in Europe.
With less than 20 minutes left, Hernandez did superbly well to defend a ball on the left touchline before finding Nani, whose shot was expertly parried away by Beto. The Mexican was superb tonight, harassing Braga defenders, chasing down every ball and making some astute runs in behind the Braga defenders to confirm himself as a key part of this Manchester United team, despite the relative limited time on the pitch he’s had so far this season.
United had the momentum and, with fifteen minutes to go, had the winner too, as Tom Cleverley ignited his otherwise dull night by delivering a brilliant ball to the far post where Hernandez soared unchallenged to head the ball past Beto and ensured that Braga’s record of seven unbeaten games on the road in Europe came to a crushing end.
The result puts United in total control in Group H, with nine points in three games, followed by Cluj on four and Braga on three.
Adopting a Mo Farah-like strategy might suit United at this stage of the competition, but there’s no doubt they’ll require a more Usain Boltesque approach if they’re to progress further.
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