Cristiano Ronaldo’s second coming at Manchester United has already produced two memorable moments with late winners against Villarreal and Atalanta BC to edge the Red Devils toward the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.
However, Ronaldo’s return has also come at a cost, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men increasingly looking like a disjointed bunch of talented individuals rather than a team.
United were on course for a fifth defeat in eight games when Atalanta led 2-0 at halftime at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
A stirring second-half fightback eased the pressure slightly on Solskjaer as United went from bottom of Group F at the break to top by fulltime.
Ronaldo completed the comeback with a towering header after goals from Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire brought the home side level.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has come under fire in the past few weeks for the detrimental impact his arrival has supposedly had on the rest of the team.
Ronaldo’s lack of running off the ball has been scrutinized as a cause for United’s dreadful defensive record.
However, he is delivering at the other end, with six goals in nine appearances.
“He’s great in front of goal,” Solskjaer said. “If anyone wants to criticize him for work rate or attitude just watch this game. Watch how he runs around.”
A much-needed three points reduces the risk of crashing out at the group stage for a second consecutive season, although there remains plenty of work to do with trips to Atalanta and Villarreal still to come.
The spotlight also remains on Solskjaer ahead of Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford in the Premier League on Sunday, with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City also to come before the international break next month.
United have taken just one point from a possible nine in the Premier League against Aston Villa, Everton and Leicester City to fall five points off the leaders.
“That first half was worrying. It looked anything but a team,” former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes said of Wednesday’s match. “Can they play Liverpool like that? Never in a million years. Can you play Manchester City like that? Can you play a top Champions League team like that?”
“I don’t want to sound like a party pooper, but that first half was a major worry for me,” Scholes said.
Not for the first time this season, Solskjaer was indebted to goalkeeper David de Gea for a huge double save when Atalanta still led 2-1 inside the final 20 minutes.
Despite the Spanish goalkeeper’s return to his best form, United have still kept just one clean sheet in their past 20 games.
“We need to defend better, I know that,” Solskjaer said. “It’s perceived we are so inconsistent in general performance when you concede easy goals. Today, [we conceded] another couple of easy goals and we need to eradicate that because we are playing good teams in the next few weeks.”
Also in Group F, Villarreal, who were beaten by Ronaldo’s stoppage-time winning goal three weeks ago, won 4-1 against BSC Young Boys to lift the Europa League champions from last to second.
Elsewhere, Bayern Munich and Juventus recorded typical trademark wins to top their groups with three straight victories and no goals conceded.
In Group E, Bayern routed SL Benfica 4-0 with late goals, including one from Robert Lewandowski, after standout saves by Manuel Neuer in the Lisbon stadium where they won the title 14 months ago.
Barcelona finally got a win, 1-0 against Dynamo Kiev, to end some unwanted historic streaks for the club and stay in contact in the group led by Bayern.
In Group H, It was an efficient 1-0 win for Juventus against Zenit St Petersburg thanks to an 86th-minute goal by Dejan Kulusevski.
Salzburg were the other group leaders in action, beating VfL Wolfsburg 3-1 with goals from the kind of young forwards that the Austrian champions excel in nurturing then trading on.
Teenage Germany forward Karim Adeyemi scored early before 21-year-old Switzerland winger Noah Okafor scored twice in the second half.
Also in Group G, a 0-0 draw between Lille OSC and Sevilla dragged down the average goals to three per game with 24 in total one day after a 35-goal rush in the eight games on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by AP
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