Cristiano Ronaldo rescues Manchester United late on to see off Villarreal

What a finish, and guess who: Cristiano Ronaldo bundled home a breathless 95th-minute winner and maybe jump-started Manchester United’s season. With Atalanta beating Young Boys to lead Group F, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team are now up and running with three points.

Ronaldo’s box-office intervention should not fool anyone, though, as United were again what they currently are: dazed in defence and dizzy in attack, lacking composure where it matters. This should be of deep concern to Solskjær. His side resemble a kick-and-chase schoolboy proposition which can be found out at any moment.

This is a long way from the stuff of true contenders and it will take some alchemy for the manager to transform United into anything approaching this.

Ronaldo’s fifth goal of his second United coming came on his 178th and record-breaking Champions League appearance but it is team not individual honours Solskjær, Ronaldo et al must chase. Still, the result arrests a run of three reverses in four games, the manager can build on it with Everton here on Saturday, and with Old Trafford ringing out to “Viva Ronaldo” plus the latter grinning into the camera as the final whistle went seconds after his winner, a feelgood factor that was seeping away has a fresh transfusion.

For the unavailable Aaron Wan-Bissaka (suspended), Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw (each injured), Solskjær drafted in Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelöf and Alex Telles in a back four behind a midfield in which the – dreaded, for some fans – McFred partnership was broken up, the manager plumping for the McPob of Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba.

Paco Alcácer slides in to give Villarreal a 1-0 lead.
Paco Alcácer slides in to give Villarreal a 1-0 lead. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Solskjær blamed Saturday’s reverse to Aston Villa on the quaint reason of attacking too fast yet in a lame opening period any forward foray came hurtling at 110mph, with Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Telles, Ronaldo and Pogba careering about with any plan more akin to the playground than elite club.

United were being turned at will by Villarreal, too. Arnaut Danjuma galloped into space along the left and took aim at a David de Gea, who parried. Further holes were punched when Danjuma sold Dalot a prize dummy, the Dutchman’s subsequent effort tipped away by the already busy De Gea.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Atalanta 2 1 4
2 Young Boys 2 0 3
3 Man Utd 2 0 3
4 Villarreal 2 -1 1

Manuel Trigueros was next to enjoy prime United space as neither McTominay nor Pogba tracked him and so Paco Alcácer was released, his effort being blocked.

This all meant United were resembling the rabble that went down to Villa – a collection of players rather than a team, with zero foundation and clue.

At this juncture a goalless draw felt a foolish bet – there had been four between the opponents – as Emery’s men continued the bombardment.

Those in red were just unable to take, and hold, possession. The best they managed was the odd burst in which, say, Greenwood fed Pogba and a ball went swinging towards the lurking Ronaldo only for it to be intercepted, as happened on the half hour.

The resounding notes from the crowd were deep groans and there were plenty when Raphaël Varane missed a simple tackle and Alcácer darted in, his instant effort going wide. Attack-at-will seemed to be United’s message to their visitors, so lax were they. Alcácer broke again and pushed the ball wide to Yeremi Pino, and moments later De Gea saved low.

The closest United came to an opener before the break was when Alberto Moreno nearly turned a Pogba chip past Gerónimo Rulli for an own goal: a neat summation of how feeble they were. Confidence and skill were lacking – when Telles fell over the ball here was a dismal augury. At this stage United would surely snatch at a draw and first point, a perverse analysis considering they were at home, to a mid-ranking La Liga opponent yet to win a match.

Even this prospect seemed distant when Villarreal ripped them apart along the hapless Dalot’s flank, as Trigueros relayed to Danjuma whose ping over was hit home by Alcácer. Cue a stunned United faithful who could not, though, be shocked. This had been coming all night.

But United soon equalised – and how. Fernandes floated a free-kick over from the right to Telles who, from outside the area, volleyed superbly and cleanly beyond Rulli into the corner. Next, Jadon Sancho – twice – might have given them a lead but he stumbled.

Yet for United this remained too open a contest. Pino fashioned a lob that had United scrambling, then Boulaye Dia somehow missed from close range towards the end. Having introduced Edinson Cavani before this, the No 21 spurned a golden chance to head the winner. But now came the moment and the man. Good work by Jesse Lingard laid the ball back to the vaunted No 7 and he hammered home.

Pandemonium broke out but Solskjær still has to fix the powder-puff element that runs throughout his side. And soon.

Contributor

Jamie Jackson at Old Traffford

The GuardianTramp

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