Cristiano Ronaldo came to Manchester United’s rescue yet again on Tuesday, with a brilliant volley sealing a 2-2 draw with Atalanta.
It was Ronaldo’s second goal of the game, and his fifth in the Champions League this season. Three of those goals have come after the 80th minute.
While United have struggled since Ronaldo arrived back at Old Trafford, there is no doubting his quality and ability to stand tall in decisive moments – something that has arguably saved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job after a difficult start to the campaign.
Ronaldo’s stunning volley set United on their way to a 3-0 win over Tottenham last time out in the Premier League, with the 36-year-old then turning provider for Edinson Cavani.
United’s 3-5-2 set-up negated Spurs, albeit the Red Devils face an altogether different task when they host neighbours Manchester City in Saturday’s early kick-off.
Solskjaer might have bought himself time, but United have a tendency to drag their manager back from the brink. He has a good record against City, but given United’s last home game saw them lose 5-0 to Liverpool, Solskjaer may well not survive another drubbing.
Milestone coming up for Ronaldo
United’s defensive frailties were exposed again by Atalanta and if not for Ronaldo’s lethal finishing, their Champions League progress would have been in significant doubt.
Ronaldo is now on 798 goals, scoring that total from 1,088 matches. The majority (450) came during his nine-year stint at Real Madrid, while he has netted 127 for United, a further 115 for Portugal, 101 at Juventus and five while at Sporting CP.
He has not scored many times against City, however, managing four goals in 13 appearances, with 11 of those coming as starts. His record in terms of wins is better, with Ronaldo tasting victory eight times against the Citizens, suffering three defeats.
When going up against sides coached by Pep Guardiola, Ronaldo has scored eight goals across 16 appearances.
It was not until the fifth game against a Guardiola team that Ronaldo found the net (in April 2011 in a Clasico draw), while he has only scored more than once in such a game on one occasion.
This was, however, in his last appearance against one of Guardiola’s sides, which came way back in 2013-14 as he scored twice in Madrid’s Champions League semi-final win over Bayern Munich.
A quick turnaround
“If it was tomorrow, we would play tomorrow,” Guardiola said after the 4-1 home win over Club Brugge on Wednesday, which finished approximately 63 hours before City and United are due to take to the pitch on Saturday.
“The schedule is the schedule, sometimes we play Tuesday, sometimes Friday. Sometimes it is 12:30 or sometimes 5:30pm. I am pretty sure at 12:30 on Saturday we will be at Old Trafford. When you are Manchester City you realise nobody helps you – no one.”
Guardiola, like Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp has been on many occasions, will likely be fairly irked by the swift turnaround his players face, though it has to be pointed out there will at least be no notable travelling involved for City’s stars.
History is also on City’s side. Of the 11 times they have played at 12:30 on a Saturday following a Wednesday Champions League match under Guardiola, they have won eight, drawn two and lost just once.
That sole defeat came last season, when Leeds United ran out 2-1 victors at the Etihad Stadium in April.
Does Solskjaer have the edge?
Despite his struggles, Solskjaer can have some confidence heading into Saturday’s match based on his own promising record against City and Guardiola.
Solskjaer has lost just one of his five league derbies, winning three of them. The Norwegian has often deployed a counter-attacking set-up in these matches, and has enjoyed success with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard picking apart City on the break.
As opposed to the hap-hazard pressing approach deployed in the Liverpool thrashing, Solskjaer reverted to counter-attacking against Spurs, with excellent results. United did press, but kept their shape while doing so, and were happy to surrender the possession to Nuno Espirito Santo’s team, seeing just 41.8 per cent of the ball, but managing more shots (10 to nine).
It would seem almost certain that Solskjaer looks to utilise a similar set-up against City, who had 67.6 per cent of the possession and managed 14 attempts in a frustrating 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace last week.
United have averaged two goals per game in the league derbies that Solskjaer has taken charge of, conceding just three times in total across the five fixtures. It is a tactic that has proven its worth.
However, it is a risky one. In their seven meetings in all competitions since the start of the 2019-20 season, United have recorded expected goals (xG) values of below 1.0 in all but three games.
A similar lack of cutting edge on Saturday, combined with the type of defending that has left United so vulnerable at the back, could prove Solskjaer’s downfall.
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