The manager might have changed as Manchester United enter a new ‘interim’ era in the dugout, but on the pitch on Tuesday it was an all too familiar Champions League story.
Popping up with a decisive goal when his team needs it most is what Cristiano Ronaldo has built his illustrious career on, and yet again it was him who proved the hero for United against Villarreal as the Red Devils booked their place in the knockout rounds.
He is the first player to ever find the net in the first five games of an English club’s Champions League campaign, with his 78th-minute lob over Geronimo Rulli the third time he has scored the match-winner in the final 15 minutes of a European game since his return to United.
He also netted the stoppage-time equaliser in Bergamo against Atalanta at a time when they were at real risk of elimination, with only the opening night defeat against Young Boys not including a late Ronaldo intervention in their run so far.
The way United have played in Group F makes it difficult to believe that they have managed to qualify for the last 16 with a game to spare, but that is where they find themselves thanks to Ronaldo’s heroics.
“It’s what he does, in the big games and big moments when you need something he’s there to deliver,” caretaker boss Michael Carrick said after his side ran out 2-0 winners in Spain.
“He’s got a cold and calculated mentality, he’s so calm, and doesn’t snatch at the chances.”
There might be tactical issues that the new man in charge will need to figure out when it comes to fitting Ronaldo into a functional line-up, but in terms of earning the club millions for their European progression, the United hierarchy will feel their investment in bringing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner back to Old Trafford has been worth it thus far.
Though they were indebted to David de Gea for keeping the score at 0-0 before Ronaldo’s latest strike, there were positive signs for the travelling supporters at El Madrigal, who consistently sang the names of both Solskjaer and Carrick from behind their perspex screen in the away end.
The midfield yet again found life difficult when out of possession, but Fred played a key role in both goals, with the second the kind of strike many expected from United following their summer spending, as Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes combined on the counterattack to play in Jadon Sancho for his first goal in a United shirt. _*Goal*_