Hernandez double gives United late Braga rights
Manchester Utd 3
Javier Hernandez seems to have slipped down Manchester United's pecking order of poachers with the arrival of Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck's increasing prominence.
However, the clever Mexican reminded everyone of his worth here.
United fell behind for the eighth time this season, an alarming trend, but again they fought back from Alan's brace thanks to Hernandez's double either side of Jonny Evans' strike.
This was a really important contribution from Hernandez, taking United to within touching distance of the knockout stages.
Hernandez was excellent. Shimmering with intelligent movement, he kept ghosting away from his Braga markers, twice finding space to meet crosses first from Shinji Kagawa and then an absolute gem of a delivery from Tom Cleverley, who was a consistently influential force for United.
Concerns remain, however. United badly missed Rio Ferdinand at the back, while Alex Buttner remains a work in progress at left-back. Patrice Evra's place is not under sustained threat yet.
United need the experience of Evra and Ferdinand. They certainly lacked organisation and awareness in the painful opening stages.
They were caught cold within 90 seconds. Hardly had the Stretford End begun to absorb the sight of Michael Carrick at centre-half when Braga came calling, clearly sensing an uncertainty in United's defence.
Ruben Amorim and Elderson began the move on the left, working the ball back to Hugo Viana, such an unfamiliar figure from the shadow of his £12m Newcastle United self.
United failed to stop him and Viana lifted the ball across the goalmouth. Again United should have cleared it; instead their defence froze and Alan was too quick in mind and body for Buttner and the Brazilian headed the visitors ahead.
The Stretford End, slowly going through their songbook, seemed to linger over Jaap Stam's name. How they missed a commanding centre-back.
Residents of the Stretford End then had ringside seats of further embarrassment. This time it was Carrick caught out. Eder turned him brilliantly, speeding towards the goal-line, then eluding Carrick again in a race into the box. Eder's cutback was perfectly placed for Alan to shoot low past David De Gea.
Ferguson had thought Braga's style, effectively with only one centre-forward in Eder, would allow him to field Carrick out of position. The England international was not alone in his travails.
Gradually, United rallied. Wayne Rooney, captain for the night, was playing at the tip of United's midfield diamond, and he began to link up with Hernandez and Van Persie.
United started to move forward more promisingly and pulled one back after 25 minutes, with much of the good work done by Van Persie.
The Dutchman was fouled as he turned away from Leandro Salino and Alan, but the Serbian referee played a good advantage as Shinji Kagawa took over. The Japanese international lifted the ball across for Hernandez to head it home.
A sense of relief settled on Old Trafford. Van Persie and Rooney then combined beautifully, almost creating an equaliser, but Hernandez's flick was cleared.
United were denied what looked a legitimate goal by Hernandez by an errant offside flag.
Ferguson tweaked his team at the break. Kagawa was withdrawn, replaced by Nani, who sprinted on to the right flank and immediately imposed himself, winning a corner after jinking run.
The pressure soon told. When Van Persie bent in a corner after 62 minutes, the ball clipped the back of the stooping Carrick and carried towards Evans. The Northern Ireland international missed with his first attempt, but reacted well to poke the rebound past Beto.
Van Persie was dropping off Hernandez, but still running into a thicket of green. Custodio anchored with Viana, making United look wide.
Then Hernandez did superbly in the left after taking a buffeting from Nuno Coelho. But he leaped up and raced clear, despite Custodio's attempt to haul him back.
Hernandez darted into the middle before bending the ball into the path of Nani, who caught it well only to be denied by a good save from Beto.
Hernandez's movement and work-rate were outstanding and he soon had a second. When Tom Cleverley lifted a long cross from the right towards the far post, Hernandez timed his run and scored with an unstoppable header.
Old Trafford stood in salute of the Mexican as Ryan Giggs replaced him.
United continued to press, continued to seek another goal. Van Persie turned well and shot over.
Cleverley continued to impress, dropping back and disrupting Braga, who looked looked crestfallen at the final whistle as they departed with nothing, having played so well. (© Daily Telegraph, London)