Cristiano Ronaldo seals Manchester United victory against Arsenal

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Welcome to the madhouse, Ralf. If the new Manchester United interim manager was not fully aware of the scale of the challenge he faced, or how erratic his new team have become, it was highlighted in front of him during a performance which oscillated between the ridiculous and the sublime.

Ralf Rangnick had buckled up before kick-off in the director’s box, his work permit having arrived earlier today – although too late for him to take part in the match – and he could be delighted with the way United found a way to win.

Obviously, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who made the difference. Recalled in the starting lineup by outgoing interim Michael Carrick, he scored twice to move up to 12 United goals in 16 appearances for the season, with the second from the penalty spot proving to be the winner. But that only partially told the story of a team display that was rocked by defensive insecurities and a lack of cohesion.

When Ronaldo’s penalty kicked in, there were 20 minutes remaining and it would have taken a brave or foolish United fan to predict a no-frills end of the result. There are no such certainties at present; the last two months or so have been a battle from one phase to the next and Arsenal have had their chances. And yet, they couldn’t take them – reinforcing another theme of the occasion.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was hesitant with one at the break and he was fortunate enough that an offside flag was raised against him after failing to beat David de Gea soon after. The Arsenal captain’s touch has abandoned him time and time again. And, when the clock hit 87 minutes and the ball broke for substitute Bukayo Saka, Fred was rushing into a vital block.

If anyone caught the messy nature of it all, it was Fred, who seemed determined to find different ways to put his team in trouble for much of the first half, with the main dish being his role in the first goal.

The midfielder lost his bearings on an Arsenal corner and trampled on De Gea’s foot as the goalkeeper came to strike. This caused De Gea to roll his ankle and crash into obvious distress. Arsenal, meanwhile, got the ball through the edge of the area for Emile Smith Rowe to shoot at home with De Gea still being hit.

United felt a whistle had to go away. To them it was almost surreal and Martin Atkinson exploded, Fred – hilariously – leading the protests. And yet the referee only did it after the ball had returned and for what? Fred’s foul on a teammate? It soon became clear that the goal would be maintained.

Fred would show great courage to retaliate. He had already won the ball over Thomas Partey in the 11th minute to create a chance for Ronaldo, who the center-forward trailed alongside Marcus Rashford in right space. At the end of the first half, Fred would create the equalizer for Bruno Fernandes and it was he who was the victim of a fault by Martin Ødegaard for the decisive penalty.

For Arsenal, the frustration was intense. They had arrived in good form – with seven wins and two draws in 10 league games – and, with the present of the first goal, they had the springboard to start. And yet, they found a way to throw it away; their defense tinged with naivety, their final actions often lacking in sharpness.

United had started with five points in the previous eight games – their worst streak over such a period in Premier League history – and it’s hard to overstate how bad they were in the opening 15 minutes. They were nervous and error-ridden, providing spaces for Arsenal between the lines and, although Smith Rowe’s goal was colored by weirdness, it had been marked out.

Rashford had cut inches above his own crossbar in the second minute after a poorly defended corner and, before that, Jadon Sancho had missed an easy pass to give Aubameyang his first shooting opportunity. It was blocked.

United were there for the catch and Arsenal left them off the hook, allowing them to make their way to the front foot – albeit a bit unsteady. Gabriel Martinelli gave a good opportunity in the 39th minute after cutting from the right – Smith Rowe was in space for the withdrawal – and United was a game-changer with the equalizer, which was defined by ingenuity and vision of Fred.

Ben White had made a mistake with a clearance and, when Sancho pushed the ball inside towards Fred, he did well to angle for the cut back and execute it. Fernandes’ sure side foot was his first goal for United in 16 appearances.

United started the second half with a brighter pace, although they still needed De Gea to beat a Gabriel header after a corner kick. Ronaldo almost scored after drifting inside Partey and working Aaron Ramsdale from a tight angle and then he did.

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Nuno Tavares lost the ball to Diogo Dalot and left a gaping gap behind him, which Dalot exploited with a nice pass to Rashford, who crossed. When White and Partey lost Ronaldo, everyone knew what was going to happen next.

It was the prompt for United to go out and leave space at left-back for Partey to select Martinelli, with Ødegaard coming in undisputed to lead the center into the far corner. Ødegaard, however, would turn nasty, his slit in Fred’s back giving Ronaldo a chance on the spot. The mystery was that Atkinson needed a pat on the shoulder from VAR to deliver the kick. It was not the only one.


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