Manchester United once again displayed attacking prowess coupled with defensive frailties as they overcame Portuguese opponents Braga 3-2 to continue their 100% record in this seasons Champions League campaign.
Sir Alex rested Rio Ferdinand (but definitely not because of Kick It Out t-shirt gate..) and Patrice Evra, and brought back Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley who missed Saturday’s game after being in action for their respective countries the week before. De Gea maintained his place once again, which can only be good news, and Carrick dropped back into central defense with Jonny Evans, flanked by Rafael and Alex Büttner. Ferguson once again chose to play with a diamond midfield of Darren Fletcher sitting at the base, with Kagawa wide left, Cleverley wide right, and Rooney at the top, with Hernandez and van Persie up front. Whilst this formation combats an aggressive 4-4-2 well by providing natural players between the lines, the sacrifice you make is with the width of your team, and United were incredibly narrow for the first 45 minutes.
As is the now well established pattern for United at home this season, they were quickly behind, conceding to a cross from Braga’s left hand side which was dealt with by neither centre-back and on which Büttner was out-jumped by Alan who powered a header down low past De Gea. One goal quickly became two as Carrick was rounded far too easily by Eder who slotted a low drive past De Gea at his near post.
Braga sat for the rest of the first half playing five across the back, sometimes with all eleven men inside their own box trying to protect their lead, but the interplay of van Persie especially gave hope to the home supporters that there would be a way back into the game. The two goal deficit lasted only 5 minutes as van Persie was taken out after a lovely piece of skill to turn on the ball, only for it to fall to Shinji Kagawa who played a delightfully deft chip from the left side of the box to Hernandez, who was all alone at the back post, to head in.
Kagawa appeared to hurt himself just before halftime and was moved into the middle in a switch with Rooney which saw the scouser, captain on the night, pushed out wide left. Kagawa would not emerge for the second half, and Nani was brought on in his place, a very definite change aimed at providing some much-needed width to the team, and equally stopping the progress that Braga had made from the wings in the first half.
United had to wait until the 65th minute to level the game as the in-form Jonny Evans scored from a scrappy corner to make it two goals in his last three games (as well as the header he should have scored against Stoke at the weekend). Then after mounting pressure, United took the lead in the 75th minute as an inch perfect cross from Tom Cleverley found Hernandez, again alone, to head past Beto. This was easily United’s best goal of the night given the movement of Hernandez and the vision of Cleverley.
Hopefully the two goals that Hernandez scored tonight can begin to repair his damaged confidence, and see further exploitation of his pace in future games against tougher opposition.
Shortly before the final whistle, De Gea lingered on the ball, then misplaced a pass leading to a chance, albeit a small one, for Braga to equalize leading to a corner for the Portuguese side. Rooney, when coming back to defend the corner, chastised De Gea for his mistake and the young Spaniard seemed to shrink into himself for the rest of the game. With rumors abound this week that De Gea is homesick, i wondered if, in his role as a captain, Rooney may have been better putting his arm round De Gea and supporting him through the obvious mistake rather than shouting at him, but both approaches have their positive and negative sides.
Sir Alex has a tendency to rotate the squad for games where he believes we should easily win, and tonight was no exception. Whilst the changes were clearly made with Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge in mind, there’s no escaping the fact that again we gave away two very poor goals tonight, and again we made hard work of getting a result that should have been straight forward. On the bright side, the one striker that didnt score against Stoke at the weekend scored two, and our attacking play, particularly when van Persie was involved was great to watch.
If United are to get a result at Chelsea on Sunday, i wouldn’t put any money on their ability to keep a clean sheet…