Manchester United have seen themselves eliminated in Group stage play twice in the past seven years. On both occasions, there was the Portuguese team Benfica in the Group who won the upper hand over The Red Devils. Sir Alex vowed not to give away any home advantage again this season, but his decision to rest Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra against another threat from Portugal’s Braga would concern the fans.
A simple combination of Hugo Viana’s cross and Alan’s header had already exposed the inexperienced and wounded back four in the opening minute of the game. It certainly shocked the side with loads of quality but not the European football experience. Without the leadership from Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs, the pressure to deliver hit the youngsters. When Michael Carrick was being teased near the byline and United found themselves 2-0 down, it looked to be a long night for the completely disorganized defense.
Braga put all eleven men behind the half way line when leading. It was a very effective way to stop United which played a diamond midfield without great width. The quality and efficiency shown by Braga made fans recall Benfica and Basel’s performance at Old Trafford last season. Thankfully, Van Persie, Kagawa and Javier Hernandez combined to pull one back and brought Manchester United back into the game. Fans were re-energized and players’ passes on the field were sharpened. If not for a wrongly-judged offside on Kagawa, United could have leveled before the half time whistle.
Braga was well aware of United’s ability to win from behind. Stoke City was the latest sufferer at Old Trafford. With Nani substituting the slightly injured Kagawa at half time, United seemed to opt for more direct football. Rooney moved to left to accommodate the 4-4-2 formation, which Alex Ferguson does not fancy, as Cleverley’s aggressiveness in the central midfield often makes it a more open game.
United wwere completely in control once the second half began. Although Cleverley carelessly misplaced couple of easy passes, Johnny Evans and Michael Carrick regained their level of concentration to dispossess Braga’s counter attacks led by Eder, Micael and Alan. The Red Devils’ determination was rewarded with Evans’s goal following a corner, when he completely missed the shot with his right foot but followed up with his left.
Rio was pumped up on the bench and Fergie was relieved. Just as if the winning goal was on his way, the linesman once again incorrectly ruled an offside on Hernandez, who could have been released by an excellent Van Persie’s through ball. Jose Peseiro knew the following half an hour would be even tougher.
The arrival of Van Persie and the emergence of Danny Welbeck drops Hernandez to the fourth choice striker at Old Trafford, but the Mexican seized the opportunity of a rare start to prove his worth to the team. His pass to Nani following a stumble near halfway line was impressive enough. However, it was his excellent positioning in the box that makes him invaluable. It was left back Elderson in the first half, then Leandro Salino the right back in the second half who were shaken off and allowed two free headers scored by the striker. Hernandez fired United to lead 3-2 from trailing 0-2.
The complacent De Gea nearly gave away the hard-fought lead, and Braga had reclaimed a significant amount of possession since Hernandez’s winning goal, but they were eventually one goal short from earning a well-deserved point.
Manchester United tops the group and another comeback victory has built up strong spirit prior to the clash at Stamford Bridge coming Sunday. However, have they dug too deep and also too often this season? Tottenham has already demonstrated that it is not impossible to hold onto a lead at Old Trafford. The heavy reliance on the quality of attackers will let them down on some days. The importance of solid defense cannot be underestimated and Sir Alex needs to address this problem as soon as possible to prevent the early complacency becoming a habit.
While smiles were everywhere in Manchester, Hernandez departed the field without his trademark grin. He maybe still worrying about his future at the club, or he has already spotted this recurring problem of the team.