Home » Cristiano Ronaldo late show saves poor Manchester United

Cristiano Ronaldo late show saves poor Manchester United

by Scott Eckersley

That boy Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s not human, is he?

Just three days after scoring the wonder goal that settled nerves and guided Manchester United past Spurs, here he was doing it all over again (and again) against Atalanta.

The visitors had stuttered and stalled in the second half against the spirited Italians. Trailing for over half an hour, they lacked coherence and again struggled to create clear chances.

As the game drifted into injury-time, progress from a relatively easy group appeared to be teetering on a knife-edge.

Defeat would have left United needing a big result against a tricky Villareal side to stay alive. Cometh the hour, cometh the superman.

Atalanta would have been preparing to celebrate a famous win when a skirmish on the edge of their box saw the ball arcing towards the Portuguese.

Much was said about the otherworldly technique that made the Spurs goal possible and this was almost a carbon copy in terms of concentration and execution.

Hitting it low and true, the shot fizzed past Juan Musso to give United a draw they barely deserved. From third place to top of the group in a flash of inspiration.

That’s what geniuses do, isn’t it? Make the most of the fine margins, salvage lost causes, and break hearts. If you want to make a football god laugh, just tell him your plans.

It was his second game in a matter of days and 36-year-olds aren’t supposed to be like this. They’re supposed to be having testimonials, dipping toes in punditry, and easing back down the gears into life-after-football.

But this is no ordinary 36-year-old. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, as an audience, we’re still surprised by his enduring ability to bend any game to his will.

The higher the stakes, the likelier it becomes that he’d be in the right place at the right time to burn another improbable Ronaldo memory into our collective consciousness.

It wasn’t all good for United though. After the defensive solidity and clean sheet at the weekend, they were back to their chaotic, inscrutable worst.

Raphael Varane’s composure was missed when he was subbed off injured in the first half and, even though Eric Bailly was typically entertaining at centre-back, Harry Maguire was again poor.

It begs the question, what will it take for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to drop his struggling captain? This seems to have gone beyond a slow start to the season. Maguire is starting to look like a liability.

The England man was shaky all night and was at fault for the second goal. First, he played Duvan Zapata onside and was sluggish in trying to stop the attacker’s run at goal.

With David De Gea characteristically rooted to his line, the Colombian had the easy task of nudging his side ahead with half an hour remaining.

Maguire seems in need of a reset. He needs a reminder that first-team places aren’t just handed out at Manchester United. Only players who perform make the grade.

It would also send a useful signal to the rest of the squad that nobody is secure and places are always up for grabs. The time for good vibes and fist bumps is over.

Parroting lines about United’s DNA is well and good but underachievement should not be tolerated. Ruthlessness runs through the club’s lifeblood and the Norwegian needs to tap into it.

And yet, Maguire’s creaky showing was somehow topped (bottomed?) by Paul Pogba. The Frenchman replaced Fred in midfield and displayed his full variety of failings before being replaced by Nemanja Matic.

Pogba is something of an anti-Ronaldo in a red shirt – the bigger the occasion, the greater the demands, the likelier it is he’ll disappoint.

For followers of Pogba-bingo, there was a bit of everything. Being dispossessed in dangerous areas – check. Aimless Hollywood passes – check. No defensive discipline – check.

If 3-5-2 represents the way forward, it’s more difficult than ever to see how the mercurial Frenchman fits the formation.

Two long-feeling weeks ago, Ronaldo scored a late goal to secure triumph over this very same opponent. A few days later the victory was hollowed out by a rampant Liverpool.

If history repeats itself – this time as farce – and the Reds perform like this in the derby, the feeling of permanent déjà vu will surely have major consequences.

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