Champions League: Villarreal 0-2 Man Utd – Cristiano Ronaldo and Jason Sancho score
One of the biggest problems for Manchester United’s interim manager, or even the interim’s interim, is that certain players have got into so many bad habits under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that the flaws cannot be swiftly erased. Meaning when Ronaldo loses the ball – which happens, even to the best of them – and Juan Foyth skips around Anthony Martial to bring it out from the back, Martial shows all the enthusiasm for the chase that an aged, arthritic bloodhound might for a thrown stick.
He doesn’t want to run anymore; he wants to be left alone. Later, put away on the left, Martial showed none of the pace that was once a great asset, doing a poor impersonation of a player who wanted to get a cross in, rather than delivering the real thing. He got there, just, but it took a little too much effort and he didn’t have the ball under control, failing to keep it in play. Entering the final minute, Ronaldo set off on the counter finding Rashford and Fernandes, who moved the ball on to Sancho. He had a good game. Hard graft in the first-half, hard to contain in the second. This was his first goal for the club, the shot thundering off the underside of the bar, a real looker of a goal. It was no more than his performance deserved.
He had two chances on Tuesday and scored one, which had the game won before Jadon Sancho’s late intervention. It was a moment of wonderful inspiration coupled with the coolest of executions. And no, as his critics maintain, Ronaldo is not what he was. But how many natural born goalscorers are, at his age? What remains would still lead the line at the majority of elite Champions League clubs, and is more than capable of making the difference on occasions such as this.
That’s why, on his advice and that of others, United seized a unique recruitment the opportunity when it arose; that’s why they were desperate to stop Ronaldo going to Manchester City, and that is why the player believes, at 36, he still has something to offer. Because he does. And some very experienced football men at Old Trafford – well, one in particular – know that about him. Sir Alex Ferguson was keen for his return not because he sees the social media opportunity or the marketing dollars, but because he sees the footballer.
So a good night for United, but good for Carrick, too. Leaving out the big names was bold and United had more resilience than has been displayed in recent weeks. Is it a corner turned? Come on, how many times have we thought that from this group this season?
United can still be disappointing like that. At times, Villarreal seemed to be able to pass directly through the centre of their midfield, which was vacated, and Alex Telles is one of the modern breed of full-backs who makes a better winger. On two occasions, he was left utterly flat-footed in close proximity to goal and while his counter-attacking work was often the best of it for Manchester United early on, the bar remains low.
Villarreal had been the better team until that point. Suddenly, they looked vulnerable, as they had late on at Old Trafford. And it is at these moments that Ronaldo comes into his own. He senses that weakness, he reads the shift in narrative, and he steps up and wins. The game was heading for stalemate – and still not United’s worst result in the circumstances – when, in the 78th minute, Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli played a dangerously poor pass to Etienne Capoue. Fred read it from way out, set off swiftly and nailed the former Tottenham man at the moment the trundling ball arrived. Capoue served it up, back towards his own goal and on the bounce. It fell to Ronaldo and his native brilliance did the rest.