Manchester United visited SC Braga for the fourth round of their Champions League group stage on Wednesday. The Red Devils were looking to seal qualification to the knockout stages by avoiding defeat to the Portuguese side.
Chris Smalling made his first start this season at centre-back after recovering from a metatarsal fracture. Rafael Da Silva was given a rest on the bench as Antonio Valencia started the game at right-back.
Further ahead, Sir Alex opted for what seemed on paper to be a simple four-man midfield. Nani started on the right while Danny Welbeck was on the left. Ryan Giggs and Anderson occupied the central positions. Javier Hernandez started as the lead striker with Wayne Rooney deployed in the hole in support.
Dire First Half
Although United's formation was nominally a 4-4-1-1, it turned out to be more like a 4-5-1 during the course of a dire first half.
Probably aware of the fact that United only needed a point to qualify, and concerned about the speed of Braga's counter-attacks, Sir Alex concentrated on deploying a solid lineup rather than one designed for scoring goals.
As a result, Wayne Rooney played far too deep, acting mostly as a third central midfielder. This left Javier Hernandez far too isolated on his own up front. Thus, it was no surprise that United hardly created a scoring chance in the first half.
Most of United's positive attacking moments came from the right where Nani and Valencia showed good understanding.
In terms of attacking, United's opponent, Braga, definitely had the better half. Three or four different times, Braga succeeded in getting the ball into the United box with players in good positions to score.
The best of these chances came to Éder who hit the post with a header. Another chance came to Ruben Micael who volleyed over from inside the box.
At the end though, none of these chances came to anything and the score stayed 0-0 at the end of a thoroughly insipid and uninspired first half for Manchester United.
And Then The Lights Went Out...
The second half began disastrously for United as the referee awarded Braga the softest of penalties when Custodio ran into Jonny Evans inside the box.
Alan made no mistake from the resulting penalty to give Braga the lead. It was ironic that the buildup to the penalty call involved some extremely casual play by the Manchester United players, starting with David De Gea who gave the ball away easily.
In the 57th minute of the match, as if in answer to Sir Alex's prayers, the floodlights failed and plunged the entire stadium into darkness. The players went back into the dressing room, with the United players probably dreading the hairdryer that would soon be directed at them.
The game resumed 12 minutes later with Rio Ferdinand replacing Jonny Evans at centre-back. More disappointingly for United though, the resumption did nothing for their attacking play.
The pattern of play from earlier in the game was repeated as United had lots of sterile possession, while Braga continually threatened on the counter.
In a bid to rescue the situation, Sir Alex sent on his top scorer, Robin van Persie, to replace Welbeck. And the Dutch striker did not disappoint his manager, although luck played a huge part in his contribution.
As United moved the ball quickly to RvP, the Braga goalkeeper Beto came out in a suicidal bid to get to the ball. With the goalkeeper in no man's land, the Dutchman curled in a delicious shot with his left foot into an empty net to give United a hardly deserved equalizer.
The equalizer, though, put new wind in the Red Devils' sails and from there on in, the game could only see one winner. United's best passage of play in the game saw Giggs release Hernandez over the top. Beto blocked the Mexican striker's shot.
However, Wayne Rooney got to the loose ball first and earned a penalty when Nuno Coelho brought him down inside the box. Rooney showed no signs of his nervousness after his penalty against Arsenal in the last match and scored from the spot to give United the lead.
Javier Hernandez then added a third goal in injury time to add some lustre to a game in which United rarely looked like they would score, let alone get the win.
However, the third consecutive comeback win of their European campaign means that Manchester United are now through to the knockout stages as winners of Group H. The win also means they are the only team left with a perfect record in this year's Champions League.
The early qualification to the knockout rounds, accomplished in typical United style, was also a great way for the team to commemorate Sir Alex's 26th anniversary as the manager of Manchester United.
Braga: Beto; Salino, Coelho, Douglão, Elderson (Zé Luís 90'); Custodio, Viana (Mossoró 86'); Alan, Micael, Amorim (Barbosa 85'); Éder
Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Evans (Ferdinand 57'), Evra; Anderson, Giggs; Nani (Rafael 73'), Rooney, Welbeck (van Persie 64'), Hernandez
Braga: Alan (pen.) 49'
Manchester United: van Persie 80', Rooney (pen.) 84', Hernandez 90'
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