Villarreal 0 Manchester United 2
The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was a different system, a different starting line-up and a different ex-player in a club suit and tie inside the technical area but, for the fourth of Manchester United’s five games in Group F to date, there was a crucial late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Another Ronaldo late show against Villarreal and a welcome first goal for Jadon Sancho in the dying embers ensured Michael Carrick’s first game in caretaker charge saw him apply the finishing touches to, arguably, the one thing that was going well for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season and secure passage to the Champions League knockout stages.
Before anyone at Old Trafford gets ahead of themselves, though, this was not the type of display seen during Solskjaer’s first games as an interim that saw him catapulted into the job permanently. For long periods, it was more like the days of Louis van Gaal, only without the possession. United still required David de Gea to come up with a handful of important saves.
You hesitate to say that the healing process has started, given that this is the same group of players that have performed miserably of late, overseen by exactly the same coaching set-up, Solskjaer aside, but at least the mood around Carrington over the coming days will be different.
“In some ways, it was the best way to win for me, that we had to show some character and fight. It has not been an easy couple of days for anyone at the club and that result almost feels like it is for Ole, I can’t get away from that,” Carrick said.
“We had a job to do and things needed to be taken care of. I was happy to do it and thankfully it all went to plan in the end.”
Carrick presented himself as the continuity candidate while previewing this first game as caretaker, yet more changed than many expected. Anthony Martial came in from the cold to play up top, with Ronaldo, initially, on the left wing. Marcus Rashford was left among the substitutes, Jadon Sancho in the starting line-up. But, most surprisingly of all, Donny van de Beek was finally handed his first start since mid-September at the expense of Bruno Fernandes.
Whether it was intentionally fluid or unintentionally all over the place, the only certainties were that this was not Solskjaer’s usual 4-2-3-1 and Ronaldo’s reluctance to track back out wide was pulling the rest of his team-mates out of whatever the intended formation was. Ronaldo and Martial eventually swapped places and there was finally a sense of order, as the Carrick interregnum settled into a 4-3-3 in possession and a 4-4-2 out of it.
While United found their bearings, Villarreal threatened. De Gea would have his palms stung several times, first by Moi Gomez after Scott McTominay’s loose giveaway of possession. Yeremi Pino hit the side-netting shortly after, having stepped too easily around Alex Telles – another brought in from the cold, replacing Luke Shaw, who was left at home with concussion.
Shaw’s absence and the benching of Fernandes hurt United. Without their two most creative players, all Carrick’s side could muster going forward in the early stages was an off-target McTominay header.
Midway through the first half, Villarreal’s share of the play climbed up to 73 per cent. If this was Carrickball, it was a departure from his playing days when he considered possession nine-tenths of the law.
In all honesty, it did not make for particularly good viewing at all.
At least De Gea was managing to stay awake. A superb one-handed parry of Manu Trigueros’ shot just before the half-hour mark was followed by another after the break. United had improved as the first half went on, with some glimpses of a burgeoning understanding between Sancho and Van de Beek down the right, yet still their only efforts on Geronimo Rulli’s goal were two tame Ronaldo attempts.
Things only really changed once Fernandes was introduced after 66 minutes. United finally started to have promising spells of possession deep in Villarreal territory, demonstrated by a cute one-two between the Portuguese and Sancho that should have resulted in the £73m signing scoring his first United goal.
That would have to wait as, inevitably, Ronaldo would have his moment first.
And while this was yet another late Ronaldo winner, it was made possible by the much-maligned Fred. His eager pressing of Etienne Capoue foiled Rulli’s attempt to play out from the back, immediately springing Ronaldo through on goal. The finish was sublime, looped over the top of the stranded Rulli. Ronaldo has now been responsible for six of United’s eight goals in this group stage.
In the final minute before stoppage time, Sancho made things look comfortable, even if that had not entirely been the story of the game.
Still, it was a fine flowing move, taking in substitutes Rashford and Fernandes, then finished off the underside of the crossbar by a player that the remaining members of United’s coaching staff have been desperate to see score.
They were desperate, too, for this night to be the start of a turnaround in their fortunes. It is far too early to claim that, but it at least brought a place in the last 16, a rare clean sheet, and, perhaps, a fresh start. (© Independent News Service)