There was no repeat of last season's embarrassing early exit as Manchester United FC won UEFA Champions League Group H with two games to spare. An opening salvo of four straight victories allowed them the luxury of fielding inexperienced XIs in their final two matches, which finished in defeat. United's progress, if impressive on paper, was not entirely serene, though, as three times they had to come from behind to win – a recurring habit of Sir Alex Ferguson's side in 2012/13.
Story so far
United went into their opening fixture against Galatasaray AŞ at Old Trafford with Sir Alex demanding no repeat of the "careless" mistakes that had cost them dear the previous campaign. They overcame Galatasaray 1-0 through Michael Carrick's goal, yet the Turkish team gave them an awkward evening and, with injuries necessitating a different back four in each game played, they continued to show defensive vulnerability in the matches that followed.
Fortunately, despite falling behind to CFR 1907 Cluj and SC Braga (twice), their offensive power turned those encounters around, and by the end of matchday four – the night the lights went out during their game in Braga – United had 12 points and a ticket to the last 16.
In beating Braga 3-2 at Old Trafford on 23 October, United overcame a two-goal deficit in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since their epic comeback against Juventus in the 1999 semi-finals. Javier Hernández's two goals offered a reminder of his innate poaching instincts and helped rescue United after they had looked in danger of slipping up on a home ground that no longer seems to intimidate visiting sides as it used to. Above all, though, this tie provided a microcosm of a season in which United have been conceding goals but scoring even more, with ten of their 19 wins in all competitions coming after they have fallen behind.
Spending big money on a 29-year-old may not be Sir Alex's usual modus operandi in the transfer market, yet he was happy to make an exception for Robin van Persie and it is clear to see why. The summer signing from Arsenal FC has given United "a different perspective" according to his manager, who has even likened his impact to that of Eric Cantona.
The Dutch international hit the ground running with his goals and link-up play, and his importance was no more evident than in United's two away victories in the section. Trailing CFR, Van Persie notched the two goals that decided the game; he then came off the bench in Braga to deliver the equaliser and spark the fightback as United turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 triumph late on.
Sir Alex has handed UEFA Champions League debuts to Nick Powell – who rattled the crossbar on his first start at Galatasaray – Scott Wootton and Alexander Büttner in this campaign. However, when he spoke before matchday six about the increased maturity shown by his younger players it was hard not to look beyond Jonny Evans, an increasingly assured presence in central defence, and Rafael, the energetic Brazilian right-back.
Rafael, in particular, has made big strides this term, despite his twin brother Fabio's departure on loan to Queens Park Rangers FC. "Rafael came into the team at 18 and made a lot of mistakes," said Sir Alex of the 22-year-old. "He was very rash but we invested in him for our future and he is showing that maturity now."
United managed just one clean sheet in six group matches and will know they must defend with greater conviction in the knockout phase. In this context Nemanja Vidić's return from injury on 15 December was the perfect early Christmas present for Sir Alex.
"It has been the story of our season at home, starting badly and losing goals. We have had to rescue games and it is the front players doing that."
Sir Alex reflects on the Old Trafford comeback against Braga
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