This was the same tired story of Manchester United’s season. A powder-puff rearguard, an errant midfield, an overreliance on Cristiano Ronaldo to somehow pull the result their way.
And he did it: yet again. For the third time in Group F the Portuguese levelled at the last, his fifth strike of the group stage a low volley that avoided the amateurish United being consigned to their second defeat.
Before Ronaldo’s intervention, the night’s chief culprits were the dismal Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba, the (supposed) leader of the defence and engine room, who were liabilities and, despite the late escape, the questions will continue regarding Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s position in the buildup to Saturday’s derby against Manchester City at Old Trafford.
United’s shape and plan continues to be executed only intermittently – on Saturday Tottenham were convincingly beaten 3-0; this time Solskjær’s side required a 91st-minute strike from their only consistent player to save them.
United may head the standings on goal difference from Villarreal but they go to Spain next and it would be no surprise if they come unstuck there, and in the last match at home to Young Boys, and are eliminated, as they were last season.
Control is a prime element of what United have lacked so far this season. So when Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Ronaldo tapped the ball about and the latter bounced a shot at Juan Musso and, a little later, Scott McTominay’s effort deflected on to a post, it was an apt start.
Pogba dispossessed Josip Ilicic near halfway to further suggest Solskjær’s men were switched on: this proved inaccurate as Ilicic began to display his craft, a neat reverse pass into Mario Pasalic wrong-footing United’s players for a the second time.
After failing to heed these warnings, Ilicic struck. Loose defending allowed a Duván Zapata raid along the left to go unchecked and when he crossed the Slovenian beat David de Gea, the finish squirming under the goalkeeper’s body. Yet again those in red had placed themselves needlessly behind the eight ball, and raised the volume of a raucous home faithful. A mis-hit Shaw volley, Ronaldo barging Musso, and the Portuguese fluffing a header were the response but each time Atalanta broke United shuddered.
On one occasion a high ball caught Maguire out, Zapata controlled, and United escaped only because his finished went sky-high. Only Eric Bailly’s flying intervention stopped Zapata doubling the lead, the opening arriving due to Pogba dawdling in possession. The Frenchman produced an unwanted replica of the error by leaving a pass too short for Rashford and suddenly Atalanta galloped forward. Solskjær, standing in the technical area, must have cursed inwardly, too, when Raphaël Varane was forced off injured a few minutes before the break.
This caused a rejig: from the three-man defence to a back four, as Mason Greenwood entered to add an attacker. And, somehow, United fashioned an equaliser. Having appeared a bunch of players wondering if they might ever form a unified team, they clicked. It was impressive. Ronaldo found Greenwood who found Bruno Fernandes, whose slick backheel picked out Ronaldo again. He was never going to miss.
How Solskjær’s side would perform in the second half was a conundrum, so erratic are they. If this is a team whose attack has to constantly bail out the defence, the chance that Fernandes failed to convert – from a Ronaldo delivery – seemed like it might be costly. As, too, Greenwood’s shot hammered against Musso’s left post on the angle.
United’s tackles were clumsy, they could not escape their own territory, and the midfield and defence often went AWOL, as when Zapata was allowed to race clear at De Gea to retake the lead for Atalanta. Maguire flailed – as he has too often of late – and the Colombian striker finished well. The goal was flagged offside before VAR correctly overruled the decision.
United had just over half an hour to rescue the contest – and their manager from the next round of criticism and doubt from his many naysayers. Yet unless Ronaldo and company were to work their magic for a countless time the prospects of this occurring felt bleak.
But the remarkable 36-year-old did not disappoint. First, on came Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani as Solskjær hoped to somehow conjure a goal. His prayers were answered, as United’s talisman once again stepped up to be the hero. How much longer Ronaldo can continue the rescue act is fascinating to ponder. For United, though, it is all just not good enough.