Cristiano Ronaldo’s role in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man Utd reign becomes even clearer
Cristiano Ronaldo saved Manchester United – and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in particular – in Fergie time.
With Sir Alex Ferguson watching on at Old Trafford, Ronaldo plundered a 95th-minute winner to ease the pressure that had begun to weigh heavily on Solskjaer.
A fifth goal in as many games since his return provided further proof of Ronaldo’s enduring value, his dramatic late strike of huge personal significance to Solskjaer.
After losing their Champions League opener to Young Boys and suffering successive home defeats to West Ham and Aston Villa, Solskjaer was under pressure to deliver a convincing victory.
But after being outplayed by Villarreal, who beat them on penalties in last season’s Europa League final, United looked to be heading for an unsatisfactory draw and a first point on the board in Group F.But Ronaldo had other ideas, the United icon lashing the ball into the net from an acute angle in the final minute of added time, to send the Theatre of Dreams and 70,000 home fans into delirium.
Ronaldo threw off his shirt in celebration, to reveal his formidable physique, Solskjaer clenched both fists in an undiluted show of emotion, while Ferguson clapped in admiration from the directors’ box.
Yet United, unquestionably, had got out of jail, Unai Emery’s side having carved out a multitude of chances, particularly in the first-half, with David De Gea single-handedly standing in their way.
But Solskjaer, criticised for his substitutions in the defeat to Young Boys, saw his late changes vindicated here and was rewarded with the victory that could ultimately transform United’s season.
Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard, both late introductions, played a part in the winner, the latter laying the ball off to Ronaldo, whose drilled effort had too much power for keeper Geronimo Rulli.
In the euphoric scenes that engulfed Old Trafford, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Villarreal, who dominated the game and created the best openings, but left empty-handed.
Twice inside the first 10 minutes, the side 11th in La Liga could have gone ahead, Arnaut Danjuma denied on both occasions by the brilliance of De Gea between the posts.
De Gea came to United’s rescue again in the 17th minute, saving a fine header from Paco Alcacer, after Danjuma had beaten Diogo Dalot – who had a torrid night – all ends up to deliver the cross.
Danjuma continued to torment Dalot, who had no answer to his opponent’s pace and trickery. United’s lack of a replacement right-back on the bench meant there would be no respite for Dalot.
It amounted to a chastening opening for United and there was no let-up, Raphael Varane allowing Alcacer to break free on the half-hour, but receiving a let-off when he dragged his shot wide.
De Gea was called into action again before the break, diving low to his right to keep out a shot from Yeremi Pino, as United’s defence was once again exposed with embarrassing ease.
But Villarreal deservedly took the lead in the 53 rd minute, Danjuma once again getting the better of Dalot and crossing for Alcacer, who turned the ball into the net with a first-time finish.
United levelled on the hour, Alex Telles executing an unstoppable volley from a cleverly-worked free-kick from Fernandes, before Ronaldo took centre stage to produce the dramatic late finale.