Two games, three goals, six points – it seems that Manchester United really have learned from last year’s Champions League debacle.
The Red Devils’ campaign in Europe in 2011/12 was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish, with the reigning Premier League holders unable to get out of one of the easiest groups they had ever been drawn in (and that is saying something).
In a group with Benfica, Basel and Otelul Galati, United somehow contrived to finish third, winning just one of their three home matches and bowing out in shame, with the abiding memory being Sir Alex Ferguson’s press conference following the home draw with Benfica, in which he stormed out when someone had the temerity to suggest that his team may be struggling to qualify.
But if that exchange, amusing enough at the time, was to become a comedy classic weeks later, this season Ferguson is ensuring there are no such mistakes. It is true that another easy group – seriously, do United ever get a difficult section in the Champions League? – has made a repeat very unlikely, but the Scot has been determined to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and that is just what is happening.
A Matchday 1 victory over Turkish champions Galatasaray might not have been the most convincing victory ever seen at Old Trafford, far from it, but the 1-0 win secured by Michael Carrick’s goal has set Ferguson’s side up and the 2-1 success last time out over Cluj in Transylvania has given the Red Devils maximum points from two games.
That win was far more comfortable (in the end) than the scoreline suggested and Ferguson will now be keen to qualify for the last 16 as quickly as possible. A double header against Portuguese side Braga now awaits and it is difficult to imagine United being anything other than through to the last 16 once these two fixtures have been negotiated.
You certainly can’t envisage any mistakes from them when they welcome Jose Peseiro’s men to Old Trafford on Tuesday. The odds on a home win with bwin are 2/5, with the draw at 18/5 and Braga at 25/4, and it is hard to make a case for United not winning with a reasonable amount of comfort.
Braga are a solid, if largely unspectacular, side: well drilled, organised and happy to sit back and defend deep, especially away from home, but unlikely to trouble United unduly at the other end. Stoke may have scored twice at Old Trafford on Saturday, which should concern Ferguson given that the Potters hardly ever score when they travel, but I don’t expect Braga to show a great deal of ambition.
They will be happy to play in their own half, hoping to catch United on the break, and their win over Galatasaray in the last round of matches shows that they have the potential to cause lesser teams a problem or two when everything comes together. But their loss at home to Cluj on the opening day shows their limitations and United can win this with room to spare.
The attacking options Ferguson boasts will break the Braga rearguard eventually (United have scored 13 in their last five in all competitions) and they will be winning this one. I don’t expect a rout, though, and the 23/20 that there are under 3.5 goals in a home win is the bet.
Four of Braga’s five away games this season have seen two goals or less and it would be no surprise to see them keep the scoreline respectable, particularly with United likely to be focused on finishing the job professionally rather than going hell for leather in search of goals.