United re-signed Ronaldo for the Champions League, not the Europa League, and it is in the competition he almost monopolised that he has reserved his most significant moments for. His header from Luke Shaw’s centre secured a second successive comeback triumph in a treacherous group.
The Manchester United supporters rocked to ‘Pride of all Europe’ when at one stage they seemed in danger of going out of Europe before Christmas. That prospect is anathema to Cristiano Ronaldo, without a group stage exit to blemish his record since he was last at United in 2005.
This was a more structured performance than the fortuitous victory over Villarreal. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer held his nerve in the dressing room at the pause, resisting a change, and those fortunate to stay on repaid him to record another Old Trafford comeback.
Victor Lindelof berated Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the crowd booed a back-pass and became exasperated at Bruno Fernandes’ wastefulness in a first-half that ended to the soundtrack of booing. Fernandes was diabolically bad for almost the entire night yet somehow claimed two assists.
Fernandes symbolises this United: wasteful, impatient and with no structure but capable of brilliance. Clutching victory from the jaws of defeat is by no means a stay of execution for Solskjaer, backed unanimously prior to kick-off, but this was not a ringing endorsement of his management.
Time will tell if this is a turning point or just another version of desperation that secured the victory. Paul Pogba pumped the air when the final Atalanta attempt rolled wide and Ronaldo sank to his knees at the final shrill.
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United have an enviable resilience to recover from conceding first to beat Villarreal and Atalanta, underrated teams on the continent, but they are not top-tier and the group situation is still tight. Liverpool will not be as lax.
Solskjaer will gladly allow Ronaldo to claim the glory. It cannot be a coincidence he has twice gazumped Lionel Messi in this season’s Champions League, having nodded in United’s winner 24 hours after Messi instigated Paris Saint-Germain’s own comeback against RB Leipzig.
Ronaldo’s determination was fuelled by United’s own shortcomings and he was especially hysterical after Atalanta’s second goal. The peculiarity of Ronaldo’s return is he has come back to a club that has reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League twice in the last ten years. Going that far already looks a stretch.
The United supporters chorused to ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ while the players were still in the dressing room and they entered to ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole’. Solskjaer’s applause for the Stretford End this time seemed especially appreciative. Those supporters are always going to support this United manager and his approval ratings will have risen slightly, as will have the mood at the club.
Solskjaer looked alarmingly defeatist as he clapped those who had the etiquette not to greet the half-time whistle by booing. Some of the players have long suspected Solskjaer is a soft touch and his refusal to make a half-time change seemed further evidence of that, re-emphasised by Pogba, Diogo Dalot and Edinson Cavani warming up almost as soon as the match restarted. Pogba and Cavani emerged to grind down Atalanta.
Pogba had demanded change and he was one of three changes. The reunion of Scott McTominay and Fred in midfield signalled an emphasis on performances over results for this decisive period and the latter had an underrated role, blemished by a wasted side-footer.
Solskjaer expressed his ‘trust’ in the duo only last month but their presence also signals regression, for there is only so far United can progress with those two workhorses patrolling the midfield. Pogba was still needed.
Despite his disappointment, Pogba was a genuine cheerleader as he limbered up, attempting to catch Mike Phelan’s eye. His entrance in the 65th minute was inevitable, as was Cavani’s in the pursuit of an equaliser. Sending those two on marked a psychological shift.
Sceptics will dismiss this as another win that papers over the cracks. Goodness knows what Eric Ramsay, the set-piece coach added to the backroom staff in the summer, is coaching at Carrington. United have conceded from three corners in the last two games and were undone by Aston Villa from one last month, a spectacular concession rate even after last season’s issues. Merih Demiral’s headed goal was from the most basic of dead-ball routines.
The absence of Raphael Varane has further exposed Harry Maguire, still unable to shake off his European Championship hangover. His positioning for both first-half goals was awry but it is to his credit he lashed in the equaliser so naturally. A sign of a leader, Maguire turned to the halfway line, eager to restart and get a winner.
Phelan was the first to stroll into the technical area amid scrutiny over his apparent inaction as assistant manager and hardly left it all night. He approved of the early pressing, as did the crowd, once they clocked the linesman’s raised flag following Marcus Rashford’s impotent effort. A rallying cry reverberated around the four corners and Phelan was still stood there to turn in disgust at Mario Pasalic’s opener in the 15th minute.
That compelled Solskjaer to leave his own seat 20 minutes in. There was a reassuring thumbs up for the errant Maguire when a rocket was required. Phelan’s shoulders slumped again after another set-piece goal was sieved.
Quite how an assistant manager who does none of the core coaching is expected to rouse the players is anyone’s guess but Solskjaer has always taken a back seat. He was more present as United embarked on another escapologist act and the tempo shifted immediately in the restart. Rashford coolly rolled the ball in eight minutes in to start the ball rolling.
United fans got some satisfaction.