Cristiano Ronaldo struck in the fifth minute of injury time to give Manchester United a 2-1 Champions League victory over Villarreal.
In a repeat of last season’s Europa League final, won by the LaLiga side on penalties after a 1-1 draw, the Red Devils found themselves deservedly behind when Paco Alcacer scored early in the second half.
Alex Telles levelled with a spectacular volley, and it looked as though these sides would share the spoils for the fifth game in a row in this competition, but Ronaldo drilled past Geronimo Rulli to send Old Trafford into raptures.
The result at least will ease some of the pressure on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, although plenty of concerns will remain after another disjointed display in which his side were indebted to David de Gea in goal.
7 – Alex Telles has become the seventh Brazilian to score for Manchester United after, in order, Kléberson, Rafael, Anderson, Fabio, Andreas Pereira and Fred. Samba. pic.twitter.com/PyfjIhj84z
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 29, 2021
United were missing Aaron Wan-Bissaka through suspension and both Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire through injury, leaving them looking especially vulnerable in defence.
Villarreal seemed to target Diogo Dalot early on and De Gea made a fine one-handed save to deny Arnaut Danjuma after a foray down that flank, before the United keeper sprung superbly to tip Alcacer’s header over from Danjuma’s cross.
Alcacer spurned another clear chance when Raphael Varane made a mistake as the last man, and De Gea again saved well from Yeremi Pino’s low drive, with Villarreal carrying the far greater threat despite allowing United more of the ball.
It came as little surprise when the goal finally came down the United right, Danjuma prodding the ball across the box and Alcacer poking home on the stretch from point-blank range.
United then equalised out of nothing seven minutes later, Telles volleying superbly past Rulli from outside the box after being teed up by Bruno Fernandes’ free-kick.
Dalot had offered little in attack, but he produced a sublime cross for Edinson Cavani only for the substitute to nod wide at the far post with the goal at his mercy.
There were further nervy moments in each box in an end-to-end finale, Boulaye Dia and Jesse Lingard unable to capitalise on openings, but the England international’s telling touch into Ronaldo’s path allowed the Portugal star to blast home a winner.
What does it mean? United on the board but Solskjaer concerns remain
United beat Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in their first two Champions League games last season and still failed to go through.
Having lost to Young Boys on matchday one, Solskjaer had said victory here was of paramount importance to their chances of progressing.
Still, it was very harsh on Villarreal and is unlikely to mask the wider concerns about United’s progress for too long.
Emery shows up Solskjaer again
Villarreal looked the better-drilled unit for the majority of the contest, as they did in the Europa League final, and they really should have been comfortably ahead before half-time.
Solskjaer deserves credit for making telling substitutions at the right time, but there is still much to be desired about his side when it comes to discernible tactical plans.
There have been calls for Dalot to be given a run-out at right-back for the edge he has over Wan-Bissaka in terms of attacking output.
Yet this was hardly a convincing audition for regular game time. Danjuma terrorised the Portugal international, whose impact further forward was negligible until the cross for Cavani.
On matchday three, United host Atalanta while Villarreal travel to Young Boys. Next up for the Red Devils is a home league meeting with Everton, though.
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