A lucky Manchester United secured their first Champions League win of the season as they downed Villarreal 2-1 at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The Reds were outclassed for much of the match, but an Alex Telles wondergoal midway through the second half, and a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo winner papered over the cracks once again.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær pulled no punches with his team selection, naming his strongest available lineup after the opening round defeat to Young Boys. Yet the first half was dominated by the visitors, who could, and perhaps should, have been three or four ahead at halftime.
Former Bournemouth winger Arnaut Danjuma proved a constant thorn in United’s side, and comfortably had the beating of Diogo Dalot throughout the opening period. After just six minutes he stole a march on his opposite number, though fired straight at David de Gea. Minutes later, Danjuma skipped in off the left and curled a powerful shot towards the far post, forcing de Gea to spring to his left and tip the ball to safety.
Villarreal were disciplined without the ball, and just as effective with it. They constantly posed United problems on the counter-attack, and de Gea was again called into action just past the quarter-hour when Paco Alcácer flicked a Danjuma cross goalwards. Perhaps the best first half chance fell to former Liverpool man Alberto Moreno minutes later. He received a low Dani Parejo corner on the edge of the area, though, unmarked, lashed his attempt clean over the crossbar.
United, in contrast, offered almost nothing in attack, and a tame long-range Paul Pogba effort straight into the arms of Villarreal keeper Gerónimo Rulli rather summed up their frustrations. For all the talent in red, it was an utterly clueless first half, and telling that the visitors left the pitch visibly annoyed at having failed to convert their dominance into a scoreboard advantage.
Villarreal would’ve felt a damn sight better within 10 minutes of the second half, when they finally broke the deadlock. United’s midfield was again exposed, with Villarreal midfielder Manu Trigueros receiving the ball in acres of space between the lines. He swivelled and sent Danjuma scampering to the byline, where he pulled back for Alcácer to slide home. It was a richly deserved lead for the team in yellow.
United needed a miracle — and they got one. Just short of the hour, Bruno Fernandes clipped a free-kick out to an unmarked Alex Telles, lurking a few feet outside the Villarreal penalty area. The Brazilian full-back struck the sweetest of low volleys, and the ball swerved off his boot and inside Rulli’s far post for 1-1. Old Trafford roared to life, and it felt as if the momentum had finally shifted.
For the first time, the hosts settled into a sustained spell of pressure, and Solskjær introduced Edinson Cavani in the hope of nicking a winner. Villarreal remained dangerous, and De Gea made a brilliant double-save to deny Boulaye Dia, before Alex Telles and Raphaël Varane swooped in to scramble the ball to safety.
The game seemed to be petering out into a draw, until the very last seconds of the match. Cavani nicked the ball deep in the Villarreal half, and Fred launched it towards Cristiano Ronaldo in the penalty area. He flicked it on to Jesse Lingard, who did well to stick out a leg and nudge it back to the Portuguese attacker, leaving Ronaldo with a simple finish from point-blank range. Rulli got a hand to the ball, but it wasn’t enough, and Old Trafford erupted in jubilation. But it is a win that will do little to allay the fears of United fans about Solskjær’s tactical acumen.