SC Braga (Alan) 1-3 Manchester United (van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez)
1. Qualification secure. Four games, four wins, knockouts here we come. What a difference a year makes. Manchester United’s limp exit from last years Champions League was never likely to be repeated this year and it certainly wasn’t. Complacency was nowhere to be seen in a campaign where Sir Alex used his strongest line-ups and it has certainly worked in our favour.
Now that we have secured qualification with two games to spare, it will be a chance for some squad rotation and experience gaining, starting with a daunting away trip to Galatasaray. Our first knockout game will be either on 12/13 or 19/20 February and it will be a welcome break considering how busy the Christmas period is.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal all face tough tasks to qualify from their groups and it will give us a real advantage as we can concentrate on the league. We are typically stronger after the Christmas period but now that we have this cushion in Europe, we could really fire ourselves into a great position in the league. We could also become the first English team to finish their group stage with 18 points with two more wins, a record I am sure Sir Alex would want to have.
2. Vintage comeback but poor tactics. It is typical of Manchester United to have an underwhelming performance for 80 minutes and somehow we turn the screw for the last ten minutes and come out victorious. Last night was no different.
The introduction of Robin van Persie changed the game for us. We had a more direct attacking threat as soon as he came on and it wasn’t long before he netted the equaliser, thanks in no small part to Braga’s goalkeeper. A “well taken” penalty by Rooney and a scrappy goal from Hernandez completed the comeback but tactically, we were well beaten on the night.
A midfield trio of Anderson, Giggs and Nani was never really going to work. Anderson was deployed as a deep lying midfielder and his impressive attacking game was stifled as a consequence. Nani, once again, did not impress and he is really starting to look like a player who wants to leave. As for Giggs, it was a disjointed performance from the veteran but his pass to Hernandez which led to the penalty has to get some credit.
Overall, a rather poor display that was given a lease of life when the floodlights went out. The break gave us a chance to get Ferdinand on and the game started to swing in our favour from then.
3. Great to see Chris Smalling back. The English international made his first appearance of the 2012/13 season and lasted a full 90 minutes in his comeback – and what a great sight it is to see Smalling playing again.
He has been a fantastic squad member for two years and his growth has been fantastic already at the club and he is still only 22. I am a strong believer that Phil Jones and Smalling will be our future central defensive pairing, although Jonny Evans might have something to say about that, so hopefully Smalling can regain his full fitness and crack on this season.
Although Rafael has been superb this year, it is good to have a quality back up so that he doesn’t have to play every single game. There will be fixtures where we need a bigger physical presence and Smalling’s versatility at right-back will no doubt be used in those situations.
Welcome back Chris.
4. Conductor Wayne Rooney. He is absolutely thriving playing in a deeper role this season now that Robin van Persie has become the main target man up front. Rooney admitted last season that his favourite position was ‘in the hole’ behind the striker and we really are seeing the best of that this season.
It allows Rooney’s all round game to be shown. He was never just about the goals, anybody who watched him week in week out knew that – he is always on the move when he doesn’t have the ball, tracking back and doing his fair share of defensive duties, and when he does have it at his feet there is an air of expectancy. His short and long passing game is phenomenal and he has been been instrumental so far this season.
He is slowly following in the footsteps of Paul Scholes who changed from a striker to a deeper lying play maker and while I think he is still sharp enough to be an attacker, his presence in the middle is bringing the best out of himself and United.
Robin van Persie is thriving on their growing partnership and with Manchester United scoring so freely already this season, I think we can safely say that the Premier League won’t be coming down to goal difference again.
5. Goals for all. Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were all on the score sheet last night. In seasons gone by, we have heavily relied on the goals of Wayne Rooney in all competitions but that won’t be the case this year.
While I expect Robin van Persie to be our out and out top scorer, we have three excellent strikers alongside him who will rack up a lot of goals between them. The success of 1999 depended not only on Andy Cole or Dwight Yorke but the combined effort of all four of our strikers. To compete in multiple competitions, we need strength in depth and we really have that this season.
Our goalscoring exploits have made for some entertaining football this season and we don’t look like slowing up at all. Wayne Rooney is finding the net, Javier Hernandez is coming into hot form and Robin van Persie can’t stop scoring. Danny Welbeck struggled last night but he will have a part to play this year and hopefully he can re-find the partnership he made with Wayne Rooney last year that was so potent.