Manchester United have qualified for the second round of the UEFA Champions League and have also won their group with a 3-1 win over Braga. Robin van Persie had to come off of the bench to kick-start United's eventual win after going a goal behind.
11 months after the heartbreak of crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage, United have put those demons to rest as they defeated Braga 3-1 and qualified for the next round of the competition. United now have 12 points out of a possible 12 and have also won the group with two games still to play. Of course, the night could have taken a significantly different road had United's poor start to the game continued. Sir Alex Ferguson's intelligent and effective use of his substitutes ensured that United would march on in the end.
Ferguson named a changed line-up for this match with van Persie, Rio Ferdinand and Rafael all starting on the bench. Danny Welbeck and Chicharito formed the attack with Wayne Rooney just behind and Chris Smalling got his first start in what seems like ages in the back alongside Jonny Evans. With Rafael rested, it fell to Antonio Valencia to drop back into the less comfortable position of right back. Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Nani all got starts as well. United began the game looking stronger than the home match two weeks ago that saw Braga go up 2-0 in the first 20 minutes of play but failed to register any meaningful shots on goal. A few nervy moments were shared by Smalling and Evans as Braga's attack threatened to break the deadlock. The match went into halftime 0-0 for both sides as the rain continued to pour down in Portugal.
The second half began poorly for United when Jonny Evans blocked Braga's Custodio in the box resulting in a penalty. Midfielder Alan then stepped up and blasted the ball past David de Gea to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Shortly after the penalty, the Braga Municipal stadium lost their lights and forced the match referee to remove the players from the pitch and wait for the lights to come back on. After a brief delay, the players came back out onto the pitch, United with a noticeable change. Ferdinand came on for the lack-luster Evans and immediately proved a calming influence into the team's defense. Van Persie also came on for Welbeck and had an instant impact causing the Braga defense problems. Van Persie, in the 80th minute put United fears to rest when he noticed the keeper way off his line and sent a perfect ball into the back of the net. The comeback was on and United started pouring the pressure on to the Portuguese team. Only four minutes later, Rooney won a penalty that he also successfully converted to make it 2-1 to United. The Red Devils were not quite finished yet when, in the 92nd minute, Chicharito saved his own blushes after trying to walk the ball into the net. Only after a fortunate follow-up shot did the Mexican finally score United's 3rd and last goal.
Ferguson's line-up changes were a gamble from the start and it almost backfired on him as United would need the experience and calm of Ferdinand and Rafael and also the lethal finishing of van Persie to hand his side qualification to the next round. The Scot perhaps tried to give his first team players a break at the wrong time but major changes would be expected for United's final two games as qualification and top of the group are already assured.
Man of the Match: Robin van Persie. Although only featuring for the last 25 minutes or so of the game, the Dutchman's presence practically won the game for United after his inclusion turned the tide of the match. He proves time and again why he is one of the world's best strikers after scoring in the 80th minute and igniting United's comeback.
Braga: Beto; Nuno Coelho, Elderson (Ze Luis), Leandro Salino, Douglao; Ruben Amorim (Helder Barbosa), Custodio, Alan, Hugo Viana (Mossoro); Ruben Micael, Eder
Manchester United: David de Gea; Patrice Evra, Jonny Evans (Rio Ferdinand), Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling; Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Nani (Rafael), Danny Welbeck (Robin van Persie); Wayne Rooney, Chicharito
Tags: Braga, Champions League, Manchester, Manchester United, Premier League, Robin van Persie, Sir Alex Ferguson, Soccer