Cristiano Ronaldo popped up with a 95th-minute winner as Manchester United came from behind to beat Villarreal 2-1 in the Champions League on Wednesday night at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been under increasing pressure following losses against Young Boys, West Ham and Aston Villa and the United boss had Ronaldo to thank for his last-gasp strike against the side which beat them in May’s Europa League final.
But it was far from a straightforward draw. Villarreal dominated the first half and should have gone in with the lead at the break.
Arnaut Danjuma was a constant threat on the left-hand side and forced David de Gea into making two strong saves, while Paco Alcacer, Albert Moreno and Yeremi Pino also went close.
United’s best chances came when Ronaldo headed over an early corner and Moreno nearly turned the ball into his own net.
The Spanish side did take the lead in the second half when Danjuma crossed for Alcacer to poke through De Gea’s legs at the near post.
They weren’t ahead for long, though, as Alex Telles provided a moment of magic, volleying in Bruno Fernandes’ free-kick from the edge of the box.
Solskjaer made a double substitution, bringing on Edinson Cavani and Nemanja Matic for Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba after 75 minutes and the change almost brought about an immediate impact.
Mason Greenwood picked out Cavani at the back post with a pinpoint cross, but the Uruguayan could only steer his reactive header wide.
De Gea was forced into a double save from Danjuma and Boulaye Dia before Telles’ block kept out Dia’s rebound attempt before substitute Jesse Lingard nearly won it.
That task was left to Ronaldo, as he pounced on a loose ball at the back post to force in the winner before taking off his shirt in a passionate celebration.
It was a brilliant end to the night for United, but it was definitely a fortunate result. Here are the things Solskjaer got right – and wrong – on an dramatic night at Old Trafford.
Making De Gea his No 1
As poor as his team were in the first half, one player did shine at Old Trafford.
De Gea continued his impressive form to keep his team in the game in the first 45 minutes, keeping out Danjuma on more than one occasion.
The Spaniard also made a good slow stop to keep out Pino, while he was also fortunate that Alcacer could not hit the target when Raphael Varane’s mistake let him through on goal.
There was a slightly fortunate double-stop late on, but there was little doubt De Gea was United’s stand-out player.
At the start of the 2021/22 season there was plenty of clamour for Solskjaer to make Dean Henderson his No 1 goalkeeper, but De Gea’s form since then shows he deserves credit for sticking to the £375,000-a-week man.
Solskjaer has stuck stubbornly to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation this season, with two holding midfielders sitting in front of the defence to provide balance behind four attack-minded players.
But the Norwegian manager chose to change things up to try and get some sort of revenge on the team that beat him in May’s Europa League final.
Put bluntly, it did not work. With the much-maligned Fred on the bench, Scott McTominay was left with acres of space to cover while Pogba and Fernandes often made a five-man attack.
United were carved apart time and again in the first half and were fortunate to go in with the score at 0-0.
Fans may complain about Fred’s inclusion in the side, but the reality is he or Nemanja Matic might be needed to balance the team.
United wanted a right-back in the summer transfer window and only didn’t sign one because Atletico Madrid played hard ball over Kieran Trippier.
After Atleti slapped a hefty price tag on the England international, Solskjaer and the club’s recruitment department decided to stick rather than twist.
Having spent months trying to find a home for Diogo Dalot, United eventually decided the Portuguese fullback was good enough to become the club’s back-up right-back behind Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
With Wan-Bissaka suspended following his red card against Young Boys, Dalot was pushed into the limelight and he did not shine once he got there.
Villarreal’s record signing Danjuma turned him inside out over and over again with ease. He simply ran past him and only his poor finishing and De Gea’s gloves prevented the former Bournemouth man scoring in the first half.
But Solskjaer did nothing to rectify the problem at the break and, with a sense of inevitability, the goal arrived after 53 minutes when Danjuma collected a through ball that Dalot missed and crossed for Alcacer to score between De Gea’s legs.
Dalot does not look up to standard, but Solskjaer may well be forced to play him again against Atalanta because Wan-Bissaka’s suspension has one more game to run.