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Man United's Long-Term Future Remains Murky, but the Short-Term Includes UCL Last 16

Another late Cristiano Ronaldo goal helped secure a knockout-stage berth for Man United, which is still seeking direction after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's ouster.

It was for around an hour a broadly terrible game, which was much as Manchester United probably would have wanted it. This was not in any sense the turning over of a new leaf or a bold new era dawning, but after so many poor performances over the past month, there was at least a semblance of defensive resolve. Moreover, a 2–0 win at Villarreal secured Man United’s place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare.

Not for the first time this season, Man United was grateful to Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored the opener for his sixth goal in five Champions League matches. More importantly, his late goals in the last four matches have secured all of United's 10 points in the competition. For his latest, he cleverly hooked the ball over Gerónimo Rulli in the 78th minute after Fred had intercepted the goalkeeper’s attempt to play out from the back. And United was grateful, too, to David De Gea, who made a number of good saves and one excellent one, keeping Manuel Trigueros from giving the hosts the lead.

And so the Michael Carrick era began with a win. How much that means is debatable, but it steadies the ship and perhaps increases his hopes of being named interim manager to see the club through to the end of the season. Carrick’s first major call was to leave out Bruno Fernandes, preferring Donny van de Beek, who on Saturday scored the last goal of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. The former Ajax player had in recent weeks become a cause for United fans, as though shouting for him was a way of expressing discontent without actually criticizing a manager who remains a club legend; his name was sung before kickoff by United fans at El Madrigal.

Van de Beek’s wasted year remains one of the oddities of Solksjaer’s reign. He started just four league games under the Norwegian after joining for $53.5 million in the summer of 2020. Why was he signed, and by whom? And why was Solskjaer so reluctant to give him a chance even in a failing team? Perhaps the feeling was that he couldn’t play in the same side as Fernandes, whose superb form after joining from January 2020 had been so vital in United’s improvement. But his form has waned recently, even if he has managed three assists in the last six league games and one in each Champions League game to date.

Manchester United faces Villarreal in Champions League

United players formed a huddle before kickoff, a gesture of togetherness and perhaps an awareness of the need to, at the very least, not lose. A draw would have meant United needed only to match in its final group game, against Young Boys, whatever result Villarreal achieved against Atalanta. With that in mind, and having conceded at least two goals in six of its last seven games, United was notably cagey from the start. The fullbacks, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles (in the lineup as Luke Shaw recovers from a head injury), stayed relatively deep, and that meant that Arnaut Danjuma, Villarreal’s Dutch left winger who was so influential in the first meeting between the two sides, had far less space to run into and was accordingly less of a threat.

United’s own threat was limited. With Mason Greenwood out with COVID-19, Anthony Martial started on the left with Jadon Sancho on the right. Not that the competition was fierce, but this was probably Sancho’s best game for United and culminated in his first goal for the club. He looked dangerous with the ball in front of him and very nearly gave United the lead after 71 minutes but was denied by a fine save from Rulli.

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A familiar criticism of Solskjaer was that he was unable to structure coordinated attacks—something that was particularly notable against Villarreal in last season’s Europa League final. That there was no huge improvement here says little: Carrick has been in charge only two days. And, anyway, considering the circumstances, this was always going to be a night for digging in and scrapping for whatever they could get.

Cristiano Ronaldo scores for Man United vs Villarreal

Another perceived fault was Solskjaer's use of substitutions. On Tuesday, Carrick got his absolutely right. Having gained a foothold in the game, he brought on Fernandes and Marcus Rashford for Van de Beek and Martial after 66 minutes, which almost instantly shifted the balance of the game. United became much more attacking and played much higher up the field, eventually forcing the mistake that led to the first goal.

The second was a flowing break of the sort United used to produce under Solskjaer in happier times. Fred won the ball and then Ronaldo, Rashford and Fernandes combined to tee up Sancho, who controlled the ball and lashed a shot hard and high in at the near post.

These are very early days for post-Solskjaer United, which still has a long-term managerial mess to sort, but for now the decline has been arrested and United is assured of its place in the Champions League last 16.

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