United left with nothing to Braga about

November 8, 2012 in Europe

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Giving your all for 90 minutes, it seems, no longer applies to Manchester United. Nor it seems does the saying ‘a game of two halves’. Not that this mattered on Tuesday night. In what was possibly the dullest game of football I have seen all season, United turned up in the last 10 minutes and beat Portuguese side Braga 1-3 to not only qualify for the next round of the Champions League, but to also go through as group winners.

As alluded to earlier, United weren’t in the game for the most part, and the first half was almost entirely dominated by Braga. However, despite both Javier Hernandez and then Chris Smalling going off to receive treatment on the sidelines, Braga failed to create a clear cut opening until the 21st minute. An early ball was whipped in from the right and this season’s top scorer Eder got in front of Jonny Evans to get a diving header on target, which just hit the post with David De Gea struggling to get across to it.

If Sir Alex Ferguson expected a reaction from his players, it did not come. During the remaining 25 minutes of the half, Braga controlled play and looked the only team likely to score. Alan and Leandro Salino – the braided right winger of Braga – were now dominating the United left hand side, and with Wayne Rooney, who lined up on the left wing, dropping into central midfield, Patrice Evra was looking overly exposed.

At the other end, United were struggling to create chances. Much like Saturday’s victory against Arsenal, United were pondering in the first half, with Antonio Valencia the only real spark of energy they had during the entire first period. However, in an unfamiliar role as right back behind Nani, the Ecuadorian had little impact on the game. Yet Man Utd managed to show more resilience than they had in their previous game against Braga. Last time out, Braga had raced into a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford within 20 minutes, and this time Ferguson could at least be thankful that he could bring in his side without them having gone a goal down.

This didn’t last long though. Despite Ferguson’s team talk, the second half started in much the same way, with Braga controlling both the tempo and possession, and it paid off just minutes into the new half. Another attack down United’s left allowed the exquisitely named central midfielder Custodio to flick the ball past Evans on the edge of the box, before running into his outstretched leg. The penalty was soft but probably correct, and was finished in emphatic style by Alan who hit the ball high to the right of De Gea’s goal, and it was no more than Braga deserved.

If Ferguson again expected a response from United, once again it failed to materialize and Valencia’s best effort to create something, with a dynamic run down the right hand side, seemed a flash in the pan rather than a change in momentum. If Ferguson was thankful at half time, then by this point he must have been raging, and he got his chance to show how much he would have been when a sudden power failure cut the lights and the players were called back to the dressing room. It was a welcome break from a dire game.

So a second infamous half time team talk from Ferguson, but much like the first, the added break seemed to have done little to change the flow of the game. It was evidently up to Ferguson to force a response rather than expect one, and two substitutions effectively changed the game. Robin van Persie came on for Danny Welbeck, and the disappointing Nani was replaced by Rafael. The second of these was crucial, pushing the effervescent Valencia further up the pitch.

These substitutions added that extra spark the team needed, and on the 79th minute, a quickly taken free kick resulted in the equalizer. The free kick allowed substitute Van Persie, out on the left hand side, some space to run towards goal. However, from the position he was in, nothing really seemed on until Braga keeper Beto decided, disastrously, that he should take matters into his own hands. Charging out towards Van Persie, he got to the edge of his area before Van Persie knocked the ball around him and into the back of the net. It was a really cheap goal to give away and one which not even Beto could give a reason for.

Moving Valencia up the pitch was now paying dividends with every ball going out to him at every opportunity. A good bit of play out wide by Valencia won them a throw, which worked its way out to Ryan Giggs who played in Hernandez. Despite Beto saving the initial effort, it rebounded and fell to Rooney, who shifted the ball onto his right hand side, inviting the tackle which duly came. Much like Braga’s penalty, it was soft but the referee - just about - got the decision right after a long deliberation between him and the fourth official behind the goal. Rooney dispatched the penalty high into the top right despite a slip just as he hit the ball.

It was all United now, and they wrapped the points up in extra time. A poor pass from Braga gave the ball to Van Persie, who released Valencia. The cross eventually came to Hernandez, who took it round the keeper before almost messing it up by taking too many touches and having it blocked on the line. Luckily, the ball ricocheted back to Hernandez and he managed to poke it in. It was a microcosm of the game, poor play from United which would have left Ferguson raging, except that it somehow brought results.

That ended a game which Braga deserved to win but United ultimately did win. Of course, after last year’s group stage exit, Ferguson will probably just be happy that it ended with Manchester United securing qualification, but they will have to get a lot better if they are to win anything this season.