| 19°C Dublin

United switch on late to seal progress

The lights went out on Manchester United as Alex Ferguson's formidable start to this season's Euro assault suffered a surprise power failure before an unexpected blast of the hairdryer provided a welcome source of energy.

Ferguson's hopes of marking 26 glittering years by securing qualification to the knockout stages were saved by Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández as United avoided becoming the fifth successive English team to be buried in a stadium carved from the Monte Castro quarry.

After three straight victories, a point was all United required and, despite an unconvincing display, Van Persie's well-taken equaliser, a late Rooney penalty, and and even later scrambled goal from Hernández enabled Ferguson to erase the memories of last season's early exit.

United had been chasing shadows well before the Axa Stadium was plunged into darkness and despite winning the group after last night's result, this was another glaring reminder that Ferguson has work to do if the club are to lift a fourth European cup.

Alan, the Brazilian, had once again proven an irritant to United with a 49th-minute penalty but after a short delay, following a power cut, Ferguson seized the opportunity to revive his players and inspire them to a victory out of nowhere.

Benfica and Basel had proven difficult opponents in the competition last season but this 'B-team' could not hold on to a win that would have kept alive their own hopes of progression. Braga's wonderfully unconventional Axa Stadium was carved from the Monte Castro quarry which overlooks the city and the four English teams that preceded United's visit have all been buried without scoring a goal.

Ferguson, however, had a granite-like determination to ensure this trip to north-west Portugal would guarantee mission accomplished.

He is still haunted by last season's exit at the group stages after admitting he had underestimated United's opponents and, despite making six changes from the team that cantered past Arsenal on Saturday, could not be accused of taking the game lightly here.

After making such a formidable start in their latest attempt to win a fourth European Cup, this had all the makings of a dead-rubber and United's curiously flat first-half display suggested they were happy to settle for the point required to secure qualification.

Chris Smalling made his first appearance since May and endured a testing examination in an opening 45 minutes in which Braga were far more threatening. It was Smalling's central defensive partner Jonny Evans whose lapse in concentration presented Braga with the first chance when Eder, the Portugal international, ran in behind him and sent a shot across goal without troubling birthday boy David De Gea.

It was at least an improvement on United's performance at Old Trafford, where they had found themselves two goals down after just 20 minutes.

Alan, who scored both those goals, almost punished United again when he skilfully created space in the box but his drive was smothered by De Gea.

Wayne Rooney's new role behind strikers Hernández and Danny Welbeck saw United dominate, but the patient, measured approach had all the cutting edge of a plastic spatula.

Braga could have been ruing their profligacy but were ahead four minutes into the second period, after Evans was harshly adjudged to have fouled Custodio in the box. It seemed a clumsy rather than malicious challenge but Alan seized his chance to beat De Gea from the spot and add another goal to this season's collection against United.

United were bumbling around even before the floodlights went out, casting the stadium into near darkness. A 12-minute delay followed, due to an apparent broken generator, and Ferguson probably warmed up the dressing room with a quick blast of the hairdryer.

Evans did not make it out for the re-start, with Rio Ferdinand replacing him but United appeared to benefit from the disruption. Van Persie capitalised on goalkeeper Beto's poor decision by curling the ball into the corner.

And United maintained their 100pc record, in further controversial circumstances, when Rooney went down under Custodio's challenge. Felix Brych, the German referee, needed convincing from his linesman but Rooney stepped up to swing the game United's way.

A third in added time from Hernandez, as he bundled in after appearing to squander the chance, completed the job. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent