Instead, they were just chanting ‘Viva Ronaldo’ long after a winner in stoppage time to salvage a less than perfect performance and make United’s prospects of advancing from Group F suddenly much rosier. That’s why he came back and why did everything to bring him home.
Three out of four losses made three points imperative but maybe we should have known the scenario from the start. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has developed the gift of getting out of these ruts as soon as he falls into them. When he needs a result, the United manager tends to get one. For an hour of this rematch with Villarreal, it seemed far away.
Paco Alcacer gave United’s conquerors in last season’s Europa League final a deserved lead early in the second half, as a makeshift United defense and the new system went awry. Yet with Alex Telles’ love at first sight to equalize, United have rallied to a remarkable climax and the first big European moment of Ronaldo’s second coming.
In the fifth minute of five more, it was the arrival of the Portuguese after the nice layoff of Jesse Lingard with the gloves of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli who bounced, in the ground then rose high in the net in front of the Stretford End. This late intervention was Ronaldo’s only major contribution of the night, but it was a winner.
It was such a great moment that it could even cover the considerable cracks. United, it must be said, got away with one. Considering the importance of taking three points, and with three-quarters of Solskjaer’s favorite four full-backs unavailable, this probably wasn’t the time to try a new system. He did it anyway, making four changes from Saturday’s loss to Aston Villa, with Jadon Sancho replacing Fred and Paul Pogba falling in midfield.
From there, Pogba took more forward positions than usual, leaving Scott McTominay to often patrol acres of space on his own. The only help came from Diogo Dalot, whose races in the field gave way to United’s right. After an initially aggressive start to Solskjaer’s side, Villarreal took note of the gaps United’s new system left and duly exploited them.
When David de Gea does something right United usually do something wrong so it was in the first half that the visitors dominated. Arnaut Danjuma has terrorized Dalot on the rare occasions when United right-back was in the right position to pick up runs from the former Bournemouth winger. A better finish from Danjuma on such a move would have beaten De Gea after just six minutes.
There was an audible moan around Old Trafford after Danjuma broke through United’s right again and pulled into the side net at the half hour mark, but at this point you could only sympathize with poor Dalot. . His task – filling in the gaps in midfield while covering the right flank – was nearly impossible and was not helped by his teammates.
Solskjaer descended into his technical zone at one point and waved to the rest of the United defense, reminding them to cross and fill the width of the pitch as defender three as Dalot advanced. Even Raphael Varane struggled, poorly synchronized an interception that allowed Alcacer to go head-to-head. With De Gea’s stock still and his feet planted in the ground, he sort of sent his shot aside.
United’s only real threatening moment on Villarreal’s goal in this half was a stray backpass from Alberto Moreno who beat his own goalkeeper but went to the wrong end of the post. Solskjaer saw his players play worse than this first half, but United have rarely seemed so unsure of what they are supposed to do. At least Villarreal hadn’t punished them, but even after the break they ignored their warnings.
As might be expected, Alacacer’s goal came from the bottom right of United with Danjuma once again defeating Dalot, but the chance only came thanks to an unusually manic dart from Varane to shut Dani down. Parejo. A pass through Pogba and McTominay’s limp attempt to protect the midfielder got Villarreal through. De Gea couldn’t stop Alcacer on this occasion, the scuffed finish bouncing between his legs.
It was no less than Villarreal deserved which was more than what could be said for United’s equalizer. In fairness to Telles, it was spectacular – a clean volley that dove and rebounded to deceive Geronimo Rulli, who appeared to see the ball late. It was a Bruno Fernandes free kick, cleverly thrown to the edge of the box rather than thrown into the mixer. United’s appointment of a safe coach may be paying off.
And from there, the scheme of the game was turned upside down. United improved as Emery’s visitors retreated more and more, freeing up spaces they once dominated. Edinson Cavani was introduced for the muted Sancho and fended off a great opportunity to take the lead, nodding wide when he is free at the far post.
Villarreal had a better one after De Gea could only parry Moi Gomez’s shot, although Boulaye Diaz couldn’t get in.