Manchester United continue to be a thrilling proposition that cannot control the games. But, they also continue to be an exciting team, who stank the first half and then put on a show featuring Cristiano Ronaldo leading the winner just minutes to go. If it wasn’t as late as his hit against Villarreal, it sparked the same cocktail of relief, delirium and disbelief among fans. And at the end of the day, Atalanta are no longer leaders in Group F and United have six points in three games.
Questions, however, will and should continue on what United can actually win, but, for now, it was another head-shaking night at Old Trafford, the type Ole Gunnar Solskjær still hopes to stamp out.
After the 4-2 surrender at Leicester, Solskjær responded by dropping Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Jadon Sancho, as he turned to Fred, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford in an attempt to secure a second victory in the competition against an opponent who beat Empoli 4-1 on Saturday. Atalanta had qualified for the knockout stage in the past two seasons, while Solskjær said his XI had “legs” and was a “4-2-4 plus or minus”, which seemed strange after his recent confession that United were too open.
His stated intention for United to start on the front foot seemed fairer and when McTominay released Rashford early, Atalanta was cautioned, despite an offside flag. Still, it turned out to be a false dawn in what has become a dismal first half for United. When Davide Zappacosta burst from the right and shredded the home defense until Harry Maguire did enough to thwart the wide striker, it was the best omen.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s men quickly ran into the ball as Joakim Mæhle, José Luis Palomino and Mario Pasalic tapped the ball, and Luis Muriel pressed forward. United couldn’t settle in – there was too much frenzy when Mason Greenwood fed Bruno Fernandes and he overcooked a 40-meter ball aimed at Rashford.
Fifteen minutes United fell asleep. Josip Ilicic fed Zappacosta and, without anyone tracking him, he went from the right to a hidden Pasalic who slipped into the first goal. A dark-faced Solskjær may have wondered where all the instructions on the training ground had gone.
It was a real test for a team whose low confidence was battered. The response was good – initially – as Ronaldo picked up a ball that Fred kicked fiercely, forcing a save from Juan Musso. But the resulting corner from Luke Shaw was wasted and Solskjær came into the technical area: a sure sign of concern.
What the manager saw was that Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Rashford, Ronaldo, Fernandes and Greenwood fought for their visitors in a passage that reinvigorated the home crowd. Once again, however, disappointment ensued as United were violated far too easily. Teun Koopmeiners swung a corner from the right, Shaw and Maguire fell asleep, David de Gea failed to come in and knock and Merih Demiral walked towards.
United were hit and on the verge of falling into disarray. The truth was that Atalanta had not played exhibition football. They simply probed the Solskjær team and found them fragile. Fred’s absence on a yawning goal as the interval loomed summed up United, although a shot from Rashford that grazed the crossbar was more optimistic. Not, however, the boos that greeted the halftime whistle.
Once again, Solskjær and United watched the barrel of a deadly defeat, so the next 45 minutes were crucial. When Ronaldo grabbed a ball from Fernandes the deficit should have been reduced to one goal, but he unloaded directly on Musso and Solskjær moaned.
United managed to apply sustained pressure in front of the fans who had returned to support their team. It took courage and Rashford showed it by scoring impressively. Fernandes’ pass was precise, allowing the No 10 to dash forward and, as Musso closed the angle, the finish was cool, entering the far corner.
Old Trafford were bright and a striker from Ronaldo caused a foul by Matteo Lovato and Szymon Marciniak booked the replacement. Pasalic and Marten de Roon followed the referee’s pound as United soared with McTominay soon hitting Musso’s left post with a pass from Greenwood. In retaliation, all was well, but with at least one more goal, Solskjær sent Pogba and Edinson Cavani, for McTominay and Rashford.
Cavani went to the center-forward and Ronaldo left, with Pogba given a floating role. De Gea had to spare the strenuous efforts of Duván Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi. Solskjær introduced Sancho for Greenwood but now came a crucial contribution from Maguire, the captain swinging on a cross from Fernandes, who first grazed Cavani’s head, before the defender scored.
Better to follow because Ronaldo did what he does so well: to score precisely when it matters, like the unmissable action of this team.