06 Dec 2021 | 07:53
You may have heard this one before. It was not so late this time and maybe it lacked the drama of other days but it was still familiar. The manager changes, the story does not. Above all nor does Cristiano Ronaldo.
Villarreal had felt in control, only to lose it with 12 minutes to go, allowing Michael Carrick to begin his time as interim coach to the interim coach with a win that put Manchester United through to the last 16 of the Champions League. The goal that opened the way was delivered by their No 7.
A second was added in the last minute by Jadon Sancho, smashing a shot into the roof of the net, a moment of significance and perhaps a new start for him. The move had been executed superbly by Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.
On the edge of a tiny technical area, where he had stood calmly throughout, Carrick justly permitted himself a smile. His changes, Fernandes and Rashford introduced with 20 minutes to go, radically altered the way this game played out. Until then it had largely been played quite badly.
“You’re foolish if you think you’re going to come here and it will be free-flowing football: they’re a very good team,” Carrick said. “The first half was tight, not as good as we would like [although] we grew as time went on.
“I thought we would be better in the second half but it was tough again. OK, no problem: we had the players to change it. And I’m delighted it worked out, above all for the togetherness and support the players gave each other.”
At the end United’s fans chanted the name of the manager who had departed, gratitude expressed and victory secured, another visit to Europe awaiting them. If the Carrick era is to be limited to this night in Spain, he can at least depart with a 100% record.
That had not always looked likely until a dreadful pass from the goalkeeper Gero Rulli left Étienne Capoue under the kind of pressure Villarreal had often invited and United seldom applied. The ball fell to Ronaldo who lifted it over Rulli and into the net.
Every game he has scored in this competition, six in five matches sending United through. Assisted, it should be said, by David de Gea’s saves and Villarreal’s error, as well as United’s improvement: Unai Emery’s team lost at the point at which they decided it was enough just not to lose.
Carrick had watched relatively passively despite what was unfolding on the pitch. Scott McTominay had the game’s first attempt with a header but it was Villarreal who took control with a degree of ease that would have been odd to witness had it not been seen before.
Donny van de Beek was a ghost and not the only one. When Moi Gómez ran towards the area after five minutes Aaron Wan-Bissaka did not just back off, he half-turned and ran away. De Gea made a sharp save, as he would do from Manu Trigueros when Yeremi Pino turned Alex Telles inside out. Pino had hit the side-netting and Pau Torres headed over.
There were other little vignettes of the way this was going: a cheer and then laughter when Juan Foyth turned Ronaldo; Raúl Albiol stepping away from Antony Martial; McTominay sliding past Moi; Villarreal playing out from deep, Rulli, the central defenders and the midfielders standing, inviting United to press them. Which some of the time they did – reluctantly, uncertainly and badly, allowing the yellow shirts to step into the space beyond. Until the moment United won the game.
It was tempting to conclude this is what a plan looks like – and to suggest United could do with a player like Dani Parejo or Capoue – but it did not bear fruit and United grew into the contest.
A sharp Sancho cross after half an hour was an example to follow, the beginning of a good night for him. In the next minute Ronaldo leapt vertically to head goalwards. Then he struck a free-kick into the wall. Sancho was up and running, although Wan-Bissaka gifted a ball to Moi to walk through and find Danjuma who sliced wide.
No one seemed to be in much of hurry when the second half started, although Villarreal made steady progress on the left. Another move that began with an incisive pass from deep ended with Moi’s deflected effort finding Trigueros. His shot was denied by a superb save from De Gea.
Villarreal cut through again, Danjuma bending over. A sense of déja vu was forming that would soon be complete.
Those opportunities lost, the game slowed until United accelerated it again. Villarreal showed little urgency, a policy whose risks United would reveal.
With Fernandes and Rashford on, there was more intent and United should have taken the lead when a superb exchange left Sancho free. From six yards Rulli saved but this was United’s time now – his time, too, a tale already told.