Manchester United were forced to recover from another slow start, but were able to make it three wins from three in the UEFA Champions League this morning, with a 3-2 win over SC Braga.
It is becoming an increasingly worrying trend for Sir Alex Ferguson, who must be wondering what he has to do to curb this trend of poor starts from his side, particularly after another slow start saw United go two goals down within the opening 20 minutes of play.
“It’s been the story of our season really at home, starting badly, conceding goals and having to fight back to rescue games,” Sir Alex surmised but he won’t be satisfied with that explanation, nor will he be satisfied with the manner in which United conceded their first, which came within 120 seconds of kick off and before United had managed as much as a touch of the football.
From kick off, Braga worked the ball down their left flank nicely, before Hugo Viana put in a fairly innocuous looking floated cross into the far post area. The ball hung for a long time, and a number of United defenders, particularly Alexander Buttner, were guilty of ball watching, which allowed the Brazilian winger Alan to out-muscle his opponent and direct his header beyond the helpless David De Gea.
The goal rocked United, and whilst perhaps in recent weeks the concession of an early goal has been met with a stirring resilience, on this occasion it was met with a mere whimper. Braga passed the ball around the park seamlessly, leaving a hapless United side chasing down their opponents to no avail. On the occasion that they did win the ball back, United could rarely move far beyond the half way line with any purpose, usually turning the ball over or simply running out of options have looking backwards instead.
Braga on the other hand were slick in their passing and threatening going forward, and they got their second of the night in the 19th minute of play.
The trouble started on United’s right flank once more, with Rafael caught out of position. Michael Carrick, who was filling in at centre back whilst Rio Ferdinand was given the night off ahead of the trip to Stamford Bridge this weekend, was pulled out into a wide area to halt the progress of the oncoming Eder. Carrick had seemingly done well, holding up the striker in a seemingly harmless position, until Eder pulled off an incredible turn to lose the makeshift defender, driving into the box before cutting the ball back to Alan, who produced a nice finish to tuck away his second of the night.
It was only then that United showed the sort of reaction to adversity that they have thus far this season, and they had pulled the deficit back to one goal a mere four minutes after the concession of the second.
United worked the ball well out to Robin Van Persie on the left flank, who tried a similar turn to the one Eder pulled off at the other end. He was fouled in the process but the ball fell kindly for Kagawa, and, luckily for United, the referee saw the goalscoring opportunity that was to come, playing advantage instead of calling for the foul. Javier Hernandez lost his marker at the far post, making a trademark run that was superbly spotted by Kagawa, who floated a lovely ball to the flying Mexican, who converted his header, via the goalkeeper.
It proved just the tonic United needed, and soon, the Red Devils were on top as Braga begun to withdraw themselves in the hope of retaining their lead, looking for their opportunities to come on the break.
Those opportunities were few and far between however, with United maintaining possession of the ball, and playing some decent football in the process, and they were wrongly denied an equalizer less than ten minutes later when Shinji Kagawa was ruled offside by the linesman, meaning his square pass to Hernandez, who scored into an empty net, counted for nothing. The decision was a poor one, but the play was brilliant and indicative of the world class play that the impressive set of forwards Sir Alex has assembled at the club are capable of playing, in tandem with Shinji Kagawa who looked uncomfortable in the closing stages of the half as he tried to fight off what turned out to be a twisted knee.
The half ended with the scores at 2-1, but United were well and truly in the ascendency and it seemed that the first goal of the second half would define the game.
Kagawa had to be withdrawn at the break, making him doubtful ahead of Sunday’s crunch clash with Chelsea, with Nani coming on to replace him. The change prompted a change in shape for United, who reverted to a 4-4-2 from the diamond midfield that was employed in the first half. Darren Fletcher pushed a little higher into the midfield, alongside Tom Cleverley, both of whom enjoyed fantastic games, whilst Nani took his spot on the right wing, with Rooney on the left hand side.
Braga were on the back foot from the start of the second half, but they looked as though they might have the potential to frustrate United, given how well they knocked the ball around when in possession. The Portuguese didn’t see too bothered with pushing for the goal that would reclaim their two goal cushion, trying to starve United of possession instead, which had it’s periods of success. It was perhaps a naive strategy, given the success Braga had enjoyed when taking the game to United, but United’s improved defensive performance, as well as the fantastic work ethic of Cleverley and Fletcher eventually saw United get on top in the middle of the park.
With the added width of Nani and Rooney on the flanks, United were sending a number of crosses into the box, with Hernandez going close on one occasion in particular, but he couldn’t get enough on the low, hard cross to turn the ball home.
United did level shortly after though, and it was Jonny Evans who came up with the goods for the second time in three games. The Northern Irishman was a little fortunate, having taken a complete air-swing at Carrick’s flicked header at the near post from Van Persie’s corner, but the ball fell kindly for Evans after deflecting off of a Braga defender, allowing Evans to sweep the ball into the back of the net with his left foot to level the score.
From there, United pushed on relentlessly for a winner, with David De Gea about as busy as those sat in the stands behind him.Nani went close after some amazing play from Hernandez, where he somehow escaped the clutches of two defenders despite being on the floor, scrambling to his feet and exploding into the open space, finding the Portuguese winger with a fantastic pass with the outside of his boot.
The goal eventually came in the 75th minute, and it was Hernandez who scored again, giving Sir Alex quite a headache as to who he should start up front against Chelsea. Hernandez did well to convert the chance, another header, but it was Cleverley who recieved the majority of applause for his immaculate cross from deep, which found Hernandez’s head with immaculate precision.
United saw out the rest of the game with relative ease, to remain top of Group H, where a sizeable gap of five points has opened up between United and CFR Cluj, who earned a point in Turkey, keeping United on course for the knockout stages.
Stay tuned for Sean Peter-Budge’s usual player ratings…