Since lifting the European Cup in Moscow four years ago, Manchester United have had an awful lot of trouble with teams beginning with B. They have been knocked out of the competition in successive seasons by Barcelona (twice), Bayern Munich and Basle – and last night they came close to embarrassment against Braga.
The scoreline and their recovery from a two-goal deficit will suggest this was one of Old Trafford's "great European nights" but although they are now almost Frankel-like certainties to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson would know that Europe has hardly trembled at their progress. If there had been complacency after the narrow, somewhat unconvincing, wins over Galatasaray and Cluj, Ferguson had tried his best to dispel it with programme notes warning that, however straightforward Group H appeared, the Champions League could still surprise. Belarusian side BATE Borisov beat Bayern Munich 3-1 in the last round. "And let's be honest," he said. "How many of you know where Borisov is?"
Braga is in northern Portugal, near Oporto, and within 90 seconds they became the eighth side this season to take the lead against Manchester United. Even before kick-off things had not begun well. Anders Lindegaard injured his hand in the warm-up and was out of this match and Sunday's encounter at Chelsea.
Sam Johnstone, the youth keeper, was promoted to the bench. When he makes his debut, he would hope to be behind a better defence than the shambles that took the field last night. Michael Carrick has been pressed into service several times in central defence, notably in Wolfsburg, where three years ago an injury-raddled side overcame the German champions. However, last night proved he is a midfielder.
The Champions League anthem had barely faded when Braga took the lead. Hugo Viana, once of Newcastle United, was given far too much time to deliver a fine cross and Alan, Braga's 33-year-old Brazilian, rose past Alexander Buttner.
What followed was worse. Eder, the 24-year-old from Guinea-Bissau, turned Carrick brilliantly and delivered a low cross that Alan ran between Buttner and Jonny Evans to slide home. The Ulsterman gave the Dutchman a mouthful.
Manchester United fought back and when Braga's left-back, Elderson, did not bother to mark Javier Hernandez, he had only Beto to beat to Shinji Kagawa's cross. There was an inevitability about what followed. Just after the hour, United were level as Van Persie's corner struck Carrick on the back and looped towards Evans, who took a massive swipe, missed, saw it come back off Alan's shins, had another go and scored. Then Tom Cleverley sent in a cross that was as good as Viana's had been and again Hernandez was left unmarked with fatal results.
The only previous time Manchester United had overturned a two-goal deficit to win a Champions League fixture had been in the 1999 semi-final against Juventus in the Stadio delle Alpi. That was a portent for what was to follow against Bayern Munich but Ferguson would know that, despite the chants of "Glory, Glory Man United" from the Stretford End, this was not a performance that wins European Cups.
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