Flawless start but brittle Manchester United are anything but perfect in Europe

Sir Alex Ferguson's men preserved their Champions League record in Portugal to book their place in the knockout stages, but all is not as rosy as it seems
By Liam Twomey

When a stadium power cut plunged Wayne Rooney’s world into darkness as he received the ball from Ryan Giggs just before the hour mark in Manchester United’s Champions League clash with Braga, what was provided was more than simply a surreal 10-minute interlude to a rain-soaked group stage contest.

For there, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s bemused men traipsed slowly off the Estadio Municipal pitch wondering what might have become of their abandoned attack, was also an apt metaphor for what had led to that moment. United had barely registered a shot on target, their attacking momentum disappearing into a black hole of lethargic play and wayward passing.

Troubled by Alan and Leandro Salino all night. Still does not look his old, defensively composed self.

Never looked sure of himself up against Eder spearheading a fluid Braga attack and, although there was little he could do to avert the collision with Custodio which led to the penalty, his manager was more than justified in taking him off for Ferdinand on the hour.

This was his first appearance of the season, and it showed. A very promising talent, but looked a step slower than most and needs more game time to regain his best form.
Worse still, Braga had seized a lead their dominance had fully deserved: Custodio smartly engineering a collision with the clumsy Jonny Evans just inside the penalty area, and Alan, effervescent amid inept defending at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, eagerly seizing the opportunity to smash the ball past a helpless David De Gea from 12 yards.

The first hour surprised few familiar with the prevailing narrative of United’s season so far. Yet neither did the remainder when, with power restored and play resumed, Sir Alex’s team once again proved there is no team more capable of finding their way back into the light.

Robin van Persie, introduced in place of a criminally isolated Danny Welbeck with 25 minutes left, provided the moment of salvation, albeit helped by Braga goalkeeper Beto’s incomprehensible decision to leave his goal with at least three defenders covering any danger. His folly afforded a window of opportunity which the Dutchman took in typically sublime fashion.

United, smelling blood, surged forward, and Braga, as they did in Manchester, capitulated in a sea of panic. Rooney, to put it mildly, was every bit as streetwise as Custodio in winning his spot kick, and his somewhat fortunate scuffed conversion suggests his penalty woes are not yet behind him, but the game was won regardless. Chicharito’s injury-time strike was an irrelevance, and as much the result of defensive incompetence as it was the Mexican’s admirable determination.

It was another three points won with more guts than guile – although Rooney’s flick in the build-up to his team’s third was delightful – and United have secured their passage to the knockout stages while preserving a perfect record. Unlike last season, they have succeeded in making an easy group look easy – at least in terms of results.

9/1 Manchester United are 9/1 to win the Champions League with Paddy Power
But the nature of their performances raises legitimate questions over the feasibility of their aims. United sit top of the Premier League, having scored 26 goals in their first 10 matches. They have also scored nine goals in four Champions League group games. Yet this is far from the whole story.

Wednesday evening was the seventh time Ferguson’s men have come from behind to win this season. They have kept just three clean sheets in 16 matches. Scarcely has the club’s remarkable spirit been so evident – and so relied upon. In England and in Europe, they have gained success by overpowering inferior opponents at crucial moments rather than consistently dominating them.

Domestically United have thrived in a Premier League in which it seems no one can defend. In such an environment, the value of outstanding finishers such as Rooney and Van Persie is almost priceless. On the continent, any defensive frailties have been concealed by the forgiving nature of a group which Sir Alex might have hand-picked back in August, were he given the option.

But such an anarchic approach is rarely conducive to Champions League glory. Barcelona can mostly get away with not having a defence because, at their best, no defence is needed. It is a quirk of the unique style and phenomenal quality which makes them so exceptional. United, along with every other team on the planet, are quite simply not that good.

Much, it seems, rests on the return of Nemanja Vidic in the New Year. The inspirational Serb was once the cornerstone of what became widely regarded as one of the finest backlines in Europe. Yet injuries have taken their toll, and his battered body no longer appears the force of old.

With or without his captain, Sir Alex knows he must find a solution if his public assertion that United are genuine contenders for the Champions League crown is to carry any weight. Otherwise, for all the dazzlingly bright attacking play, this European adventure is likely to meet an end as gloomy as those 10 minutes in the north of Portugal.

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