Ferguson’s hopes of celebrating 26 glittering years by securing qualification to the knockout stages were saved by three goals in the final 10 minutes as United avoided becoming the fifth successive English team to be buried in a stadium carved from the Monte Castro quarry. It took a blast of Ferguson’s famed hairdryer treatment during the 12-minute delay to do it.
After three straight victories in Group H, a point in north-west Portugal was all that United required and, despite an unconvincing display, another typically electric finale enabled Ferguson to erase the memories of last season’s exit from the group stages and reach the last 16.
United had been chasing shadows well before the Axa Stadium was plunged into darkness and although they have won the group with ease this was another glaring reminder that Ferguson has work to do in the club’s attempt to lift a fourth European Cup.
Alan, the Brazilian, had once again proved an irritant to United with a 49th-minute penalty to reward Braga’s superiority but after a short delay, following the power cut, Ferguson seized the chance to revive his players and inspire them to a win out of nowhere.
Benfica and Basel had proven difficult opponents in this competition last season but this particular ‘B-team’ could not hold on to a win that would have kept alive their own hopes of progression.
This had all the makings of a dead rubber and United’s curiously flat performance for 75 minutes suggested they were happy to settle for the point required to secure qualification. It was an approach that threatened to backfire. Chris Smalling made his first appearance since May after recovering from a broken metatarsal and endured a testing examination in an opening 45 minutes in which Braga were far more threatening. It was Smalling’s central-defensive partner Jonny Evans whose lapse in concentration presented Braga with the first chance when Eder ran in behind him and sent a shot across goal without troubling birthday boy David De Gea.
De Gea was subjected to a rather more nervy moment on 16 minutes when Ruben Micael bent a shot inches wide and, as Braga grew in confidence, Eder headed Hugo Viana’s cross against an upright. It was at least an improvement on United’s performance at Old Trafford, where they had found themselves two goals down after just 20 minutes.
Wayne Rooney’s new role behind strikers Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck saw United dominate large portions of possession, but the patient, measured approach had all the cutting edge of a plastic spatula. Braga could have been ruing their profligacy but were ahead four minutes into the second period, after Evans was harshly adjudged to have fouled Custodio in the box. It seemed a clumsy rather than malicious challenge but Alan seized his chance to confidently beat De Gea from the spot.
Shortly afterwards the floodlights went out, casting the stadium into near-darkness. A 12-minute delay followed and Ferguson warmed up the dressing room with a quick rev of the hairdryer in a bid to revitalise his players. And then there was light.
Rio Ferdinand replaced Evans and United eventually benefited from the disruption. Robin van Persie, another substitute, capitalised on Braga goalkeeper Beto’s decision to go walkies by guiding the ball into the corner from 30 yards.
And United maintained their 100 percent record when Rooney went down under Custodio’s challenge and emphatically put away the penalty. A third in added time from Hernández completed a stirring denouement.
Ferguson is not usually one to dwell on history but the last time United won their first four games, they lifted the trophy.
Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarks: “It was job done, and he is now determined to equal Liverpool’s record of five European titles. He said before the game: “I think in terms of the history of our clubs, we should have one more and I want to win it again and get into the bracket of winners like Liverpool, our biggest rivals, Bayern Munich and Ajax. I think AC Milan and Real Madrid have got separated from the rest of the bench but that definitely drives me on a bit. I get really frustrated when I think about the opportunities we have had to win it, but you can’t be greedy. You look at my career and I have won two European Cups and a Cup-Winners’ Cup and I am proud of that. We got caught out last season and we were also careless so this year we made sure we were going to qualify and so far we have done well.”
Braga: Beto, Leandro Salino, Nuno Andre, Douglao, Elderson (Ze Luis 90), Custodio, Hugo Viana (Mossoro 86), Alan, Ruben Micael, Ruben Amorim (Helder Barbosa 86), Eder.
Subs: Quim, Baiano, Ismaily, Djamal.
Booked: Eder, Custodio.
Goals: Alan 49 pen.
Man Utd: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Evans (Ferdinand 58), Evra, Nani (Da Silva 73), Anderson, Giggs, Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck (Van Persie 64).
Subs: Lindegaard, Carrick, Young, Cleverley.
Goals: van Persie 80, Rooney 85 pen., Hernández 90
Referee: F Brych