Manchester United continue to be a heart-palpitating proposition who cannot control matches. But, they also continue to be a box-office thrill, who stank the first half out, then put on a show that featured Cristiano Ronaldo heading the winner with minutes left. If this was not as late as his clincher against Villarreal it unleashed the same cocktail of relief, delirium and disbelief among fans, and when the final whistle went the No 7’s sink-to-the-knees and fist-pump illustrated precisely what victory meant.
While the bottom line is Atalanta are no longer Group F leaders and United have six points from three games, questions will continue regarding what Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side can actually win. If this was another Old Trafford night to shake the head at, is also the type the manager will hope to eradicate.
As Harry Maguire, who scored the equaliser, said: “In the first half we conceded two bad goals in two big moments. In the end we deserved the victory. Yes, we made it difficult, but it’s a great victory and we showed great togetherness in the dressing room at half-time.”
After the 4-2 capitulation at Leicester Solskjær reacted by dropping Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Jadon Sancho, as he turned to Fred, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford to try to secure a second win in the competition, against opponents who trounced Empoli 4-1 on Saturday.
The Norwegian’s stated intent for United was to start on the front foot and when McTominay released Rashford Atalanta were warned, despite an offside flag. Yet this proved a false augury in the dismal opening period for United. When Davide Zappacosta burst from the right and shredded the home defence until Maguire stymied the forward, this was the truer omen.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s men were a flow of pass-and-move as Joakim Mæhle, José Luis Palomino and Mario Pasalic tapped the ball about, and Luis Muriel pressed eagerly off the front. United could not settle – there was a franticness evident, as when Mason Greenwood fed Bruno Fernandes and he overcooked a 40-yard ball aimed at Rashford.
Fifteen minutes in, United fell asleep. Josip Ilicic fed Zappacosta, and with no one tracking, he crossed from the right to a lurking Pasalic who slid home. Cut to a grim-faced Solskjær who may have wondered where all the training ground instruction had gone.
This was a true test for a team whose confidence was being pummelled. The response was good – initially – as Ronaldo scooped over a ball which Fred struck fiercely, forcing a save from Juan Musso.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Rashford, Ronaldo, Fernandes and Greenwood took the fight to their visitors in a passage that invigorated the crowd. Yet, once more, disappointment ensued as United were breached too easily. Teun Koopmeiners swung a corner over from the right, Shaw and Maguire dozed, David de Gea failed to come and punch, and Merih Demiral headed in.
United were poleaxed and dicing with descending into a shambles. The truth was Atalanta had not played exhibition football. They merely probed Solskjær’s team and found them fragile. Fred’s miss of a gaping goal as the interval beckoned summed United up. Rashford’s shot that skimmed the crossbar was more hopeful. Not, though, the boos that greeted the half-time whistle.
Yet again Solskjær and United stared down the barrel of a wounding defeat so the next 45 minutes were crucial. When Ronaldo latched on to a Fernandes pass the deficit should have been reduced to one goal but he shot straight at Musso and Solskjær groaned. United managed to apply some sustained pressure before fans who had returned to backing their team. Courage was required and Rashford showed it by scoring impressively. Fernandes’s pass was pinpoint, allowing the No 10 to scamper forward and, as Musso closed the angle, the finish was cool, going in at the far corner.
Old Trafford was alight and a Ronaldo charge forward caused Matteo Lovato to foul and Szymon Marciniak to book the substitute. Pasalic and Marten de Roon followed into the referee’s book as United surged, McTominay soon hitting Musso’s left post from a Greenwood pass. As a riposte this was all fine but with at least one more goal needed Solskjær sent on Pogba and Edinson Cavani, for McTominay and Rashford.
Cavani went to centre-forward and Ronaldo left, with Pogba given a floating role. De Gea had to save fierce efforts from Duván Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi, before Solskjær introduced Sancho for Greenwood. Then came the crucial contribution from Maguire, the captain swinging at a lolloping Fernandes cross that first skimmed Cavani’s head, and finishing smartly.
Better was to follow as Ronaldo did what he does so well: score precisely when it matters, as this team’s go-to act. Next up on Sunday, at this stadium, it is Liverpool.
If United again perform like this the smart money is surely on the visitors. But with Ronaldo in the XI Solskjær’s men are never out of it.