Cristiano Ronaldo’s record 178th Champions League game had been one of his quietest for 94 minutes until the ball broke kindly for him to break Villarreal hearts at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Manchester United’s returning hero rode to the rescue just in time to salvage a 2-1 win from another performance which cast more doubt over where the Red Devils are headed under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Norwegian badly needed three points after a run of three defeats in four games and got it with seconds to spare.
However, Solskjaer conceded United had “got lucky” and were “saved” by goalkeeper David de Gea as Villarreal enjoyed the overwhelming majority of the chances.
The difference between the sides was in who was on the end of those opportunities.
De Gea denied Arnaut Danjuma, Paco Alcacer, Moi Gomez and Boulaye Dia either side of Alcacer’s deserved opener for the visitors on 53 minutes.
Alex Telles’ spectacular strike from distance quickly restored parity, but it was not for another half an hour that the all-time top goalscorer in the Champions League took centre stage.
“Cristiano Ronaldo only got one chance and, well, he’s Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Villarreal defender Juan Foyth, who had kept United’s most expensive summer signing Jadon Sancho quiet all night.
Sancho and Raphael Varane’s arrival in the transfer window had already raised expectations at United this season before Ronaldo’s stunning second coming in Manchester.
In Ronaldo’s five games since returning to the club, he’s scored five times. But he has also already been on the losing side twice and twice more United have needed late winners to dig themselves out of trouble.
A 2-1 defeat to Swiss champions Young Boys on matchday one left the English giants facing another embarrassing early Champions League exit had they failed to win.
“I made history in this club, and I want to do it again,” said Ronaldo, who won his first of five Champions League titles during a six-year spell at United between 2003 and 2009.
“If we hadn’t got three points today it would have been tough to get through to the next stage. But now anything is possible for us, everything is open and we believe we can go through.”
United move level on three points with Young Boys, one behind Group F leaders Atalanta.
‘Best goalkeeper in the world’
However, that there is even any doubt over United’s progress to the last 16 speaks volumes for Solskjaer’s inability so far this season to get the best out of a stellar cast.
Ronaldo, Sancho, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba all started in an offensive-minded team selection.
But Villarreal cut through the United midfield with ease on the counter-attack to expose a defence missing the presence of three of the first-choice back four due to injuries to Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s suspension.
“Thankfully we had the best goalkeeper in the world tonight,” said Solskjaer. “David was fantastic.”
The United boss continued to unload his artillery from the bench as Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard were sent on in search of a winner.
And finally the home side’s depth of talent paid off as Lingard calmly rolled the ball into Ronaldo’s path to smash home his 136th Champions League goal as Old Trafford erupted.
“What a game @ManUtd. Epic winner by @Cristiano,” tweeted Usain Bolt, who had been watching from the stands.
But it was a get-out-of-jail-free card for Solskjaer. And it buys him some time rather than a vindication of his credentials to lead United back to the status they enjoyed during Ronaldo’s first spell at the club under Alex Ferguson.
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