With a somewhat comfortable victory at the weekend behind them, Manchester United were to make the trip to Portugal, to take on Braga in the next game in their Chamipion’s League campaign. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side travelled knowing that victory could guarantee them qualification as well as handing them top spot, a potential advantage heading into the knockout stages.
With that in mind, and given their current place at the top of the group, Sir Alex opted for a strong side, but with the ability to rest certain players in preparation for the Premier League game at the weekend. For example, Rio Ferdinand was left on the bench, along with Rafael and Robin Van Persie among others. With that, birthday boy David De Gea started in goal, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, returning from injury, partnered in front of him. Antonio Valencia was asked to deputise at right back, with Patrice Evra captaining the side on the left. Ryan Giggs and Anderson took place in central midfield, with Nani out on the right and Rooney advanced just in front of them. Towards the left but further up was Danny Welbeck alongside Javier Hernandez leading the line up front.
After the dramatics and action of the last few games, the first half on this occasion was a story of frustration for the visitors, a slow and patient play in trying to break down Braga. Good possession and passing was not converted into chances as Hernandez was left wanting up front on his own, with limited supply at best. In fact one might be hard pressed to find a clear cut chance, with a cross threatening to get to Hernandez early on and good play between Nani and Anderson nearly finding a way through close to the break.
Braga, on the other hand, were well organised and were not to be broken down easily, getting bodies behind the ball regularly and lining up well while United attempted to pass their way through. The home side also had the most threat, showing pace on the break and showing United to be vulnerable with the ball crossed in. The closest they got was when Eder headed and his effort came off the post, with De Gea beaten. Despite this, the first half closed out 0-0.
The second half kicked off and within minutes, drama as Jonny Evans was adjudged to have fouled Custodio in the box and Alan fired home the resulting spot kick to give his side a 1-0 lead. From there, United continued to to look flat as Braga’s resistance showed little sign of faltering, although good play from Valencia saw a cross come in that found it’s way to Welbeck in a good position, only to be pulled back for handball. However, at the hour mark, darkness descended on the stadium as an unexpected delay took place due to a power outage.
WIth light fully restored in relatively quick time, Jonny Evans had disappeared and in place Rio Ferdinand took place. A few minutes later, and Welbeck was replaced by Robin Van Persie, with Sir Alex looking to inject more life into the attack. With United still struggling for a way through, the final change was made, with Nani – later revealed to have sustained a knock – replaced by Rafael, with Valencia moving up into the right wing.
It was all looking bleak for the visitors, with Braga holding up well until 10 minutes from time, with the ball played forward the opposing goalkeeper was found off his line and Van Persie presented with an easy opening to finish and bring the game level at 1-1.
A couple of minutes later and more drama, as Rooney was seen to be tripped as he went for a rebound from Hernandez’s effort, with the striker stepping up for the resulting penalty and firing into the corner with more conviction than he had done at the weekend. An unlikely turnaround was sealed when good play from Rooney and Valencia presented Hernandez with a chance, with the Mexican making life far more difficult for himself than he should have done, eventually scoring in scrappy fashion to extend United’s lead to 1-3 and to see out the game. Victory meant United qualified for the next round and won the group with 2 games to spare, something that Sir Alex will be grateful for as he considers his line ups for the coming weeks.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Chris Smalling welcomed back, but too soon to start?
Given the defensive issues and injuries that have blighted United’s back line so far this season, Sir Alex will have been relieved to welcome back Chris Smalling into the side. And in the group stages where United were in a comfortable position, Sir Alex considered it worthwhile taking the opportunity to rest Rio Ferdinand and thrust Smalling straight back into action with Evans at the heart of the United defence.
Of course, taking someone who has not had much action for a while and putting him straight back in a starting position was always going to be a risk, particularly in European competition, but it was one that did not prove to be costly. Some may argue that starting him so soon would not be wise and I tend to lean towards that, and in some ways that was justified, with United looking fairly vulnerable at the back particularly when Braga pushed forward on the break and played crosses in.
However, it is worth pointing out that Smalling was not on the pitch when Braga had their best chance, hitting the post in the first half when he was off receiving treatment. In all, though, it was a successful return for the Englishman, completing the game and providing the manager with more options at the back heading into the winter.
2) Antonio Valencia deputising at right back
Seeing Valencia take position at right back is not entirely unfamiliar to United fans, as he has been seen to provide adequate cover in that position last season. On this occasion, one might say it served two purposes, allowing Nani to play on the right wing, where I believe he is more effective and to give Rafael a break after what has been a heavy couple of weeks for the young Brazilian.
Valencia’s discipline tends to be helpful when employed there, generally maintaining his area and getting back well, although on Wednesday night he was able to get forward without much risk of exposure. In fact, he regularly pushed on down the line to provide an attacking threat in what was a rather useful performance from the Ecuadorian. His pace down the line allowed him to beat his opponent on more than one occasion and played good balls into the box in what was an otherwise fairly blunt attack on the evening.
3) Robin Van Persie to the rescue…..
It is fair to say that since his arrival Robin Van Persie has been extremely effective to say the least. He has provided goals and assists and has had a significant impact on results since the start of the season. He has forged a good understanding of United’s play and has integrated well into the team, with many pointing to a partnership with Rooney as a particular highlight.
On Wednesday night, he was given a rest, an ideal opportunity to utilise Hernandez and Welbeck with Rooney taking on a role deeper in midfield. On this occasion it may be unfair to be critical of the forwards, given the lack of supply and the inability of United to break down their opponent, but one must ask the question: will there be an over-reliance on Van Persie?
There is no doubt that in him, United have signed a match winner, and already this season, he has been responsible for United getting points from difficult situations. One cannot complain too much, when Sir Alex has such an option to call upon when needed, but when he is not to be used there needs to be a greater sense that United could pull off a victory without him.
It could be that on this occasion, United simply could not find a way through the opposition defences, with Braga setting up in an organised fashion and not allowing themselves to be broken down easily, they got men behind the ball and looked to counter when it got to them. On the whole, it was not a particularly impressive performance from the visitors, but with that they picked up 3 points and qualification, and given the circumstances of last season, I doubt there will be too many complaints with that.
4) Danny Welbeck wasted out wide
Wednesday night saw United employ three strikers in Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck. As mentioned before, Rooney would often be found dropping deep, helping Anderson and Ryan Giggs in midfield. Welbeck could be found more out wide, on the left with Hernandez more of a target man up front. This is not the first time fans have seen Welbeck out wide and in truth I do not think it is something that has worked. With Valencia and Nani the main avenues of attack down the right, Welbeck was found to be quiet on the left and did not have much to come by during the game, eventually being replaced by Van Persie. It was an ineffective performance in a game where his only real chance saw him called for handling as he tried to control the ball. Certainly, when used up front Welbeck provides plenty of threat going forward, although some may note that for a striker it would be ideal to see him score more.
But after the trip to Braga, one thing that may be agreed upon is that he should be used more centrally rather than out wide.
5) Qualification with games to spare… a chance to rest players?
It would be fair to say that United were less than convincing in their trip to Braga. In fact, some may say, like the other English teams, that United have not flattered throughout the group stages of the Champion’s League. Crucially, though, they have won all their games, leaving it fairly late on this occasion and with that they have secured qualification to the next round, and top spot, with two games to spare. This leaves them with a couple of options. Given the recent exit to Chelsea in the Carling Cup, Sir Alex may consider it wise to give some other fringe players in the squad a chance to get some European experience for the forthcoming fixtures.
It would provide the opportunity for players such as Ferdinand, Evra, Carrick and Scholes to gain a midweek rest and prioritise the Premier League without consequence. The alternative is that, relatively strong sides continue to be used if there are concerns over quality of performance so far in this campaign, in which case more game time to improve may be worth considering. Regardless, the possibility of fully utilising the squad is something that should not be missed and one would not be surprised to find changes made midweek until the group stages are complete.