Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Masters of the comeback
Richard Jolly, Old Trafford
There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and Manchester United comebacks. Sir Alex Ferguson's side have reclaimed their mantle as the masters of the footballing fightback. Nobody does it better. The problem is that very few get more practice.
United have trailed in Transylvania and been behind to Braga. They have seen Stoke and Southampton lead against them. Teams from north and west London to the North-West have gone ahead. In a season that is still in its first quarter, they have faced a deficit eight times, struck back on seven and won on six occasions. "It's been the story of our season," said the author of a thousand tales with a twist.
Ferguson can, and does, marvel at their powers of recovery but his side dice with danger all too frequently. They seem a team who need a pre-match blast of the hairdryer, a pre-emptive strike to prevent early lapses into carelessness and complacency. "We are certainly not getting good starts to games," said the Scot.
His is a side of two halves: decidedly dodgy when defending but with a formidable attacking armoury. "Our forward play has been getting us out of hole," Ferguson added. He has rescue acts aplenty: Robin van Persie thrice already this season and now Javier Hernandez with a brace against Braga.
"He has got me thinking - he and Van Persie and [Wayne] Rooney and [Danny] Welbeck," added the manager. "I don't know what to do with them, to be honest with you." It is not often Ferguson pronounces himself powerless but a dictator is stumped by his surfeit of forward options and baffled by his defence's habit of conceding.
"I can't get to the bottom of it," he said. "If you analyse all the goals we are losing, they are all different types. It is difficult to put my finger on it." But the case for the defence consisted simply of a list of the sidelined and a look at the fearsome fixture list. Neither excused the performances of those present. They were the side's soft underbelly.
While plenty have arrived at Old Trafford intent on damage limitation, there is an incentive to attack this United. It was rendered still greater in the absence of the rested Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. Their deputies were defective. Braga sensed an opportunity. As Marouane Fellaini had two months ago, Eder tormented the stand-in centre-back Michael Carrick. Statuesque elegance, an asset in midfield, became one-paced diffidence in defence.
With Carrick floundering, Eder's speed, skill and sheer physicality led to a first-minute corner that, indirectly, brought the opener, even if the immediate cause was the inability of Evra's understudy Alexander Buttner to stop Alan heading in. The second came when the striker spun away from the makeshift stopper and laid the ball back for the Braga captain to double his tally. "Putting Michael back there is not the best but he did his job well," said Ferguson loyally.
But just when Braga's dreadlocked Brazilian threatened to become the most unpopular Alan at Old Trafford since Shearer spurned United's advances to join Newcastle in 1996, the inevitable occurred. There are times when everyone - United, opponents and observers alike - know what is coming. Their comebacks are self-fulfilling prophecies. And when Van Persie pirouetted, Shinji Kagawa centred and Hernandez headed in, the fightback was under way.
The Mexican had a second goal disallowed, seemingly wrongly, for offside before Ferguson ditched his midfield diamond and reverted to 4-4-2 as United, in time-honoured fashion, embraced width and embarked upon attack after attack.
Jonny Evans levelled at the second attempt, initially missing his kick but then bundling the ball in. Then came a rather more assured finish, Hernandez spinning away from a would-be marker to convert Tom Cleverley's cross. "His movement was terrific," Ferguson added.
Like much of Hernandez's game, it brings the similarly sharp Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to mind. There were other reasons to remember 1999, the season of the seminal comebacks. This was the first time in 13 years United had come from 2-0 down to win a Champions League game.
That was the Roy Keane-inspired triumph in Turin, the semi-final where Juventus were stunned. This was altogether less significant. Yet it puts United on the brink of the last 16: with a 100% record in the Champions League, with 10 victories in their last 11 games, there is statistical evidence to suggest they are flying. But this is a side that seems to plunge to depths before they can savour the unique high that this particular brand of victory offers.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Hernandez - After United's other three strikers scored against Stoke on Saturday, Hernandez staked his claim for a place. It helped, too, that the marquee talents showed their unselfish side. Rooney operated in the midfield before the break and on the left wing thereafter while Van Persie operated as the No. 10, allowing Hernandez to be the side's spearhead.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: It is Chelsea, Chelsea and Arsenal next and the bonus is that Evra and Ferdinand should be fresher but United have not been frugal at the back with both present. The flaw in the diamond midfield - a lack of width - was apparent as United's full-backs were exposed in the first half and the advantages of 4-4-2, with its greater width, evident after the break. They lost Kagawa to a knee injury which will be assessed on Wednesday.
BRAGA VERDICT: The result was harsh on them. Even after Hernandez scored, they could have equalised. There was a composure and a coherence to Braga, particularly in the first half. Third in the group and the Portuguese league, they are in a three-way battle for second spot in Group H.