MAN UNITED 3, BRAGA 2
Javier Hernandez saved Manchester United’s bacon on a night which threatened to see them with European egg on their face yet again against Portuguese side Braga.
Chicarito – the little pea as he is nicknamed – struck the first and last of his side’s goals and should have had a third but for an offside decision which wrongly went against the United striker.
The Reds were two goals down after 20 minutes, but lifted themselves to victory and a maximum nine points to easily top Group H in the UEFA Champions League.
But there were again more questions than answers from another puzzling Old Trafford performance.
United have now had to come from behind in eight of their 12 games so far this season.
To their credit, they have managed it to earn victory in six of them, but the riddle of the United sphinx must be solved soon.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to rest experienced defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra did not help matters with their deputies, Michael Carrick and Alexander Buttner having to share much of the blame for Braga’s two goals.
Darren Fletcher operating in front of United’s makeshift defence failed to have the desired effect and the Reds were woefully short in midfield on too many occasions.
Although Tom Cleverley worked tirelessly and striker Wayne Rooney tracked back in his own inimitable style, the game seemed to bypass Shinji Kagawa.
United refused to panic and Kagawa’s replacement by Luis Nani at the start of the second half gave the Reds some much needed width.
With Rooney playing wide on the left for much of the time and Robin van Persie dropping deeper, it left Hernandez isolated for most of the first half.
United were on the back foot within 90 seconds of the start.
Hugo Viana’s deep cross from the left was met by Alan coming in on the blindside of Buttner to head home from six yards.
Worse was to come in the 20th minute when Eder outstripped Carrick for pace as he cut along the by-line from the left before crossing for Alan to jab in his shot from six yards on the near post.
United needed a quick reply and they got it through Hernandez five minutes later.
Referee Milorad Mazic allowed play to continue after van Persie had been fouled on the left and Kagawa’s cross was headed in by Hernandez from close range at the far post – the ball being fumbled over the line by Braga goalkeeper Beto.
Hernandez had a 31st minute effort ruled out for offside, although he was in line when he turned in van Persie’s cross.
United’s reorganisation stemmed Braga’s quick counter attacking threat after the interval and the Reds equalised in the 62nd minute.
Van Persie’s corner to the near post came off Carrick’s shoulder to Jonny Evans standing in the centre of the penalty area.
Evans swung at the ball….missed…. but slotted home the rebound after the ball came back to him off Alan.
Super skill by Hernandez in the 71st minute enabled him to wriggle free of two Braga defenders on the left touchline.
He then provided a luscious crossfield pass with the outside of his right boot which found Nani free on the right side of the Braga box.
But, despite having the time to place his shot, the Portuguese winger lashed his effort straight at Beto, who turned it behind for a corner.
United’s winner came five minutes later.
Cleverley’s pinpoint cross from the right was met by Hernandez coming in unmarked at the far post to send his header into the roof of the net from six yards.
United manager Ferguson defended his decision to rest Ferdinand and Evra when he said: “I think I did the right thing starting without them. We have a massive programme coming up over the next two weeks with Chelsea twice and Arsenal and it is important to fully use the squad we have.
“Carrick may not be the best at the back, but he did the job well for us tonight and I would not blame him for the second Braga goal.”
Ferguson remains perplexed about his side’s leaking of goals.
“It has been the story of our season so far, losing goals and then depending on our forwards to get us back in the game. We will have to work on it to solve the problem, but our front players were again terrific tonight,” he added.