Perhaps there are doubts as to whether Cristiano Ronaldo improves Manchester United overall, whether it was a necessary transfer or what this baffling team really requires, but the first Champions League crowd at Old Trafford in two and a half years weren’t asking. . them last night.
Instead, they were just chanting “Viva Ronaldo,” long after an injury time winner to salvage a less-than-perfect performance and make United’s prospects of progressing from Group F suddenly look much more optimistic. That is why he came back and why he did everything he could to bring him home.
Three losses out of four made three imperative points, but perhaps we should have known the script from the beginning. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has developed the ability to get out of these grooves as soon as he falls into them. When he needs a result, the United manager tends to get it. During an hour of this rematch with Villarreal, that seemed remote.
Paco Alcacer gave United’s conquerors in last season’s Europa League final a deserved advantage early in the second half as a makeshift United defense and the new system failed badly. However, with Alex Telles’ bolt from the blue to equalize, United bounced back to a remarkable climax and the first big European moment of Ronaldo’s second coming.
In the fifth minute of the five added, it was the Portuguese shot from the cute dismissal of Jesse Lingard with the bounced gloves of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, to the ground and then he rose towards the net in front of Stretford End. That late intervention was Ronaldo’s only major contribution of the night, but it was a winner.
It was such a great moment that it could even wallpaper the considerable cracks. United, it must be said, got away with it. Given the importance of taking three points, and with three-quarters of Solskjaer’s four preferred defenders unavailable, now was probably not the time to test a new system. He did it anyway, making four changes since Saturday’s loss to Aston Villa, with Jadon Sancho in place of Fred and Paul Pogba in midfield.
From there, Pogba took more forward positions than usual, leaving Scott McTominay often patrolling acres of space alone. The only assist came from Diogo Dalot, whose careers inside the box gave way to United’s right. After an initially aggressive start off the front foot by Solskjaer, Villarreal took note of the gaps in United’s new system and duly exploited them.
When David de Gea is doing something right, United tend to do something wrong and that’s how it was in the first half that the visitors dominated. Arnaut Danjuma terrified Dalot on the rare occasions when United’s substitute right-back was in the right position to pick up the runs of the former Bournemouth winger. A better finish from Danjuma on one of those plays would have beaten De Gea after just six minutes.
Danjuma’s second attempt was better, and he was destined for the far corner after another dance around the bewildered Dalot, but still not good enough to beat De Gea’s reflexes. The United goalkeeper, rejuvenated since winning his starting job over the summer, had to be on the alert once again when Alcacer headed a cross from Danjuma. Only 17 minutes had passed and, with a lower goalkeeper, United would have gone three down.
There was an audible moan around Old Trafford after Danjuma burst out of United’s right once more and fired into the side net at the half hour mark, but, at the time, only poor Dalot could be sympathized. Her task, filling in the gaps in midfield while still covering the right flank, was nearly impossible and she was not helped by her teammates.
Solskjaer stepped down to his technical area at one point and gestured to the rest of United’s defense, reminding them to cross and fill the width of the field like a back three as Dalot moved forward. Even Raphael Varane was struggling, poorly timing an interception that allowed Alcacer to pass one-on-one. With De Gea’s action still and his feet planted on the ground, he somehow sent his shot wide.
United’s only moment of real threat into Villarreal’s goal in that half was a backward pass from Alberto Moreno that hit his own goalkeeper but went through the wrong side of the post. Solskjaer has seen his players perform worse than in the first half, but United have rarely seemed so unsure of what they were supposed to be doing. At least Villarreal hadn’t punished them, but even after the break, they didn’t heed their warnings.
Unsurprisingly, Alacacer’s goal came from United’s right with Danjuma defeating Dalot once more, but the opportunity only arose through an unusually manic dart above Varane to close out Dani Parejo. A pass through Pogba and McTominay failed to protect the midfield and sent Villarreal. De Gea couldn’t stop Alcacer this time, the striped finish bouncing between his legs.
It was nothing less than what Villarreal deserved, which was more than could be said for United’s draw. In fairness to Telles, it was spectacular – a crisp volley that sank and rebounded to fool Geronimo Rulli, who seemed to see the ball late. It came from a free kick by Bruno Fernandes, cleverly thrown to the edge of the box rather than thrown into the mixer. United’s appointment of a set-piece coach may be paying off.
And from then on, the pattern of the game turned upside down. United improved as Emery’s visitors retreated further and further, vacating the spaces they had once dominated. Edinson Cavani was introduced by the quiet Sancho and turned down an excellent opportunity to take the lead, nodding when he was free at the far post.
Villarreal had a better one after De Gea could only stop Moi Gómez’s shot, although Boulaye Díaz was unable to push. However, a late winner was yet to come, and it was only going to be from one man.