In a stadium setting that must be one of Europe's most strange and spectacular, the UCL tonight witnessed a match between Sporting Clube de Braga and Manchester United that was equally as strange and spectacular.
United's group in the UCL this season is hardly the "group of death" that cross-town rivals City have endured, but Braga are an upcoming force in Portuguese football. They have become a regular name in the lesser UEFA competitions over the last six years or so and this is their second foray into the Champions League. It is almost certainly their biggest tie in the competition.
Having beaten Arsenal (upon whom their shirt colours are based) in their home tie in the group stage of the 2010-2011 UCL, and having started so brightly last week at Old Trafford, taking a 2-0 lead, United knew they would be no pushover.
However, so many times this season United have given their opposition a head start in games, an alarming habit that Sir Alex Ferguson will want his team to kick. Last week's early shock served as a warning and must have been a big part of the pre-match team talk.
Sir Alex once again rotated his lineup for this game, with the team's defense bearing the brunt of the changes. Rafael traveled to Portugal, but due to his exertions in the EPL and League Cup recently, he was on the bench. Antonio Valencia took his berth at right back, with Nani playing in front of him.
Chris Smalling was also brought in for his first start of the season—hopefully signalling the beginning of the end of United's horrendous injury problems at the back this year. Wayne Rooney was deployed in midfield, with Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck providing the firepower as Robin van Persie was rested as a substitute.
The first 20 minutes of the game were just how Sir Alex would have wanted them: United had plenty of possession, killing the pace of the game save the odd shot across goal by Braga (one from Eder, the other from Micael). Not too much for the 2,000 or so traveling Reds in the crowd to shout about, but a calm performance nonetheless.
As has been shown on so many occasions this year so far, though, the match was never going to be plain sailing. Braga became more confident and started to cut through the United defense with too much ease. This continued on into the second half and resulted in Braga winning a soft penalty. Jonny Evans was judged to have fouled in the area, which looked particularly harsh on the United player who had nowhere to turn as Custodio powered toward him. Alan's penalty was unstoppable.
So far, so typical of this year's United. Except this time they appeared to really be stuck in a rut, and it surely wasn't going to be too long before Robin van Persie was called in to action.
At the 57th minute, the game took a bizarre and important turn. Right on cue for the now ragged-looking Reds, the lights went out. Plunged into near darkness for 10 minutes, Sir Alex Ferguson had a chance for another word with his players. In a ground that is cut from a stone quarry, the rocks imposing themselves at one end of the stadium, he had to find a way for them to dig themselves out of yet another hole.
What followed this unexpected break was as remarkable as the surroundings.
With 10 minutes left of the game, United sparked to life like the bright-again floodlights. Now off the bench, Robin van Persie dispatched an unerring shot past the out-of-position Beto; Rooney scored a penalty that had taken an age to be awarded (the official behind the goal line confirming the foul to the referee as Braga were rushing down the other end of the pitch). Javier Hernandez also got in on the act in the last moments with a highly comedic goal that he had almost done his best not to actually score.
A glance at the group table suggests that Manchester United have qualified for the next round with ease. That belies the truth that in three of the four games, they have made things difficult for themselves, conceded first and had to battle back to win.
Twenty-six years ago yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson became the manager at Manchester United. He has mined from his own character and cut team after team in his own image from the rock face over those years. Teams that display a belief, will to succeed and sheer determination that others can only aspire to.
This season's side has one other quality to add to that, however, which could take them very far. When the lights look like going out, a striker named Robin van Persie switches on. With a defense that is leaking goals regularly, the Dutchman looks to have already become indispensable to the club.
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