Eventful Braga game encapsulates Man Utd's season
At Old Trafford
Like bookends at either end of Sir Alex Ferguson's evening, Manchester United's manager drove away from Old Trafford to ponder two pressing problems.
Finding the solution to one created by the outstanding Javier Hernandez will be a pleasure and will be considered in the days before Sunday's meeting with Premier League leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - the other may prove more painful before Ferguson uncovers the answer.
United's 3-2 win against SC Braga in the Champions League was their season in microcosm. The night started with the shambolic defending that has scarred their campaign, and ended with another rescue act performed by the rich attacking resources Ferguson has assembled.
One end of United's team posed questions the other end was asked to answer. Once more they - and more specifically the returning and rejuvenated "Little Pea" - did so.
Ferguson shook his head in bemusement at the careless manner in which United conceded two early goals to Braga's Brazilian veteran Alan. It was a defence reshuffled by Ferguson as he rested Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra ahead of the Chelsea game, but there was still no excuse for the slipshod manner of those opening exchanges.
He expressed his concerns about United's habit of making life difficult for themselves and was no wiser after this game as he said: "I can't understand our defending. I can't get to the bottom of it. It's difficult to put my finger on it and it certainly doesn't give us a good start to games, that's for sure."
Ferguson, with lighter heart and tongue in cheek, also suggested Hernandez's performance had left him clueless about what to do with an attacking quartet that also places Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck alongside the 24-year-old Mexican.
He wanted to secure qualification for the Champions League knockout phase swiftly and without slip-ups after last season's calamity. This victory puts them on the brink of the last 16 and on the surface will bring much satisfaction.
Manchester United's defence was exposed early on against Braga. Photo: Getty Images
It was a display that illustrated once more that, notwithstanding any flaws United's squad currently possesses, once you scratch beneath that surface, their stomach for a fight and the character Ferguson has built into his team cannot be questioned.
And the biggest bonus of all was the sight of Hernandez showing all the instincts and natural movement that made him an instant success with 20 goals in United's record-breaking 19th title year before enduring a relatively barren time last season.
The phrase "second season syndrome" was often uttered in relation to Hernandez last term as he did not repeat his initial impact. He has also been in the shadows as Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck played the main parts this term.
There was even talk of a switch away from Old Trafford, with Atletico Madrid linked with a move for Hernandez should they succumb to one of the many suitors for Radamel Falcao. Ferguson's post-match praise for his player suggests he will not be falling for that.
He praised Hernandez's approach in training, his goals-per-game ratio and the natural movement that is in the gift of all the best strikers. He has the ability to make more than one movement in the same passage of play, hence his ability to find space in the most congested of penalty boxes.
The two headed goals he scored to start United's comeback and conclude the recovery, with Jonny Evans's equaliser sandwiched in between, showed once more that there is more than a touch of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer about Hernandez, from the boyish looks to the lethal finishing.
If he has completed his rehabilitation after an educational second season, Hernandez will be part of an attacking force that Ferguson feels he can place alongside the one utilised in his greatest team. He has already drawn comparisons between Solskjaer, Dwight Yorke, Andrew Cole and Teddy Sheringham from his 1999 treble-winning side and his current crop.
What cannot be compared with the 1999 side that won the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup is the present United squad - talented though it is
In another 1999 footnote, this was the first time United had come from two goals down to win in the Champions League since their famous victory against Juventus in Turin in that year's Champions League semi-final.
Halcyon days but, on current evidence, this does not look like a United squad capable of repeating those feats and winning the Champions League. Not with its soft centre and habit of conceding cheap goals.
Ferguson is confident he will sort the problem and surely part of his answer will be to back away from the conviction that Michael Carrick is a central defender. He may be tall and composed on the ball, but has shown nothing to suggest this theory that he is equipped to move back from his natural home in central midfield carries any weight.
Carrick was given a fearful going over at Everton earlier in the season and once again struggled against Braga, in particularly embarrassing fashion when he was tricked and turned by Eder for Alan's second goal.
Ferguson's solution should come in the shape of returning absentees. He can restore Ferdinand at Chelsea but will hope to have Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling at his disposal in the not-too-distant future.
He will hope they give United a more secure appearance than they currently carry. The ease with which Braga scored their goals will have been noted by their European rivals and recovering the sort of situation in which they found themselves on Tuesday will be as easy the further they drive into the competition.
But where there is United's superb attack there is hope. And the sight of Hernandez back to his lethal best was the most satisfying sight of another night of mixed emotions for Ferguson.