Manchester United Win Ugly in Braga to Advance to the Knockout Stages
You will not see many uglier goals than the one scored by Javier Hernandez to seal Manchester United's 3-1 win at Braga.
But Chicharito's cartoonish scramble was strangely in keeping with United's unconvincing performance in Portugal.
Somehow, it just happened. And everybody went home smiling.
United are now safely through to the Champions League knockout stages.
It's further than Sir Alex Ferguson took his team last season and the grand old master deserved nothing less on the eve of his 26th anniversary at the club than a comeback, to summon the many to have defined his reign.
This one lacked the implausible drama of the 1999 Champions League Final, but there were similarities to be found—not least in the subdued, directionless first-half performance and a sense that his team were without a recognisable identity.
Braga showed at Old Trafford they had the beating of United's defence. They emerged at home with the same attacking ambition that saw them into a 2-0 lead two weeks ago and looked the more likely during the first half.
United, meanwhile, were in one of their European hazes. Wayne Rooney was relishing his quarterback role, but the drive and purpose United showed against Arsenal at the weekend was nowhere to be seen.
Putting Nani, Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia, Hernandez and Rooney in the same starting lineup was read as a statement of attacking intent from Ferguson. But it resulted in a disjointed performance that failed to bring the best out of any of the players concerned.
Hernandez was often isolated centrally. Welbeck was shackled with defensive duties on United's left. Nani never quite got the freedom to operate he thrives in. Valencia was playing right-back.
Braga were deserving of the lead they took from the penalty spot on 49 minutes. Jonny Evans hung out a leg and Custodio went over it. It was a stonewall spot-kick and Alan—Braga's two-goal hero at Old Trafford—emphatically beat David De Gea.
And then the lights went out. Play was suspended for 12 minutes as technicians repaired the stadium generator and when the match resumed Ferguson wasted little time in bringing forth United's illuminator-elect.
Enter Robin van Persie. The Dutchman took the field just after the hour-mark and soon enough played to type—capitalising on a mistake by Braga goalkeeper Beto to sweep into an empty net from outside the box.
United were level and on course for the knockout stages. Even that was slightly harsh on Braga.
One. Man. Team— United Rant (@unitedrant) November 7, 2012
Imagine how they felt four minutes later, when Rooney was tripped by Nuno Coelho and the referee was advised by his assistant to award a penalty. United's midfield maestro stepped forward and put his team ahead on 84 minutes.
It didn't seem possible. United's players celebrated with such relief they seemed to know it, too.
And then came Hernandez's horror-show. The Mexican side-stepped Beto, fell over and dribbled off the sorriest of shots from inside the six-yard box. Braga's generosity had already been noted, but they had one last offering for United.
They gave Chicharito the ball back. And he scored while lying on the ground.
Somehow, United finished 3-1 winners in a game they barely turned up for. For the second match running, they broke Braga hearts and this time it was enough to secure their progress to the last 16.
Little wonder Ferguson was laughing it up on the sidelines. With his team through after four straight wins, he can rest easy in the two group games that remain while Premier League rivals Chelsea and Manchester City fight for their lives.
It's hasn't been pretty, and there is much to be improved upon if United are to be viewed as genuine Champions League contenders, but the first part of the job has been remarkably painless.
It's easy to win games when your team is playing sublime football and blasting the opposition into submission. But, as Ferguson knows better than most, winning on nights like this is just as important.
As Chelsea proved best last season, winning ugly is still winning.
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