Atalanta 2 Manchester United 2
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 the Portuguese levelled at the death, this fifth strike of the phase a low volley that avoided the amateurish United being consigned to a second defeat of the phase.
Before Ronaldo's intervention, the chief culprits were the dismal Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba, who were liabilities and, despite the late escape, the questions regarding Ole Gunnar Solskjær's position remain.
United hoped to beat Atalanta, take firm control of Group F, and achieve what they had managed only once this season: win two consecutive games. For this Solskjær dropped Fred and restored Pogba, who missed Saturday's win over Tottenham due to suspension, with Marcus Rashford – for Edinson Cavani – and Eric Bailly – instead of the injured Victor Lindelöf – his other changes.
Control is a prime element of what United have lacked so far this season. So when Luke Shaw, Rashford and Ronaldo tapped the ball about and the latter bounced a shot at Juan Musso and, a little later, Scott McTominay saw an effort deflect on to the goalkeeper's right post it was the right kind of start.
Pogba was next to dispossess Josip Ilicic around halfway to further suggest Solskjær's men were switched on: it proved the wrong impression, as Ilicic began to display a craftiness United needed to watch more via with a neat reverse ball into Mario Pasalic, the second time Atalanta had wrong-footed them with this type of pass.
After failing to heed these warnings, Ilicic struck. Loose defending allowed a Duvan Zapata raid along the left to go unchecked and when he crossed Ilicic beat David de Gea, the shot going under the goalkeeper’s body, to his and United’s disappointment. Yet again those in red had placed themselves needlessly behind the eight ball, a predicament that merely raised the volume of a raucous home faithful.
A mishit Shaw volley, Ronaldo barging Musso, and the Portuguese fluffing a header were the response. But each time Atalanta broke United were flaky. On one occasion a high ball caught Maguire marooned, Zapata controlled, and United escaped only because the finish went sky-high. Atalanta were then able to pull Solskjær’s team around in a concerning passage in which only Bailly’s flying intervention stopped Zapata doubling the lead, the opening arriving due to Pogba dawdling and ceding the ball.
The Frenchman produced an unwanted replica of that error when he left a pass short for Rashford and Atalanta galloped forward again. Solskjær, standing in the technical area, must have cursed inwardly, too, when Raphaël Varane was forced off injured a few minutes before the interval.
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. He produced a slick back-heel for Ronaldo and United's talisman did not miss, making it a goal in each of United's four group games.
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 prove costly. As, too, Greenwood’s hammered strike against Musso’s left post on the angle.
However, United’s tackles were clumsy, they could not escape their territory, and the midfield and defence were often AWOL. That was certainly the case when Zapata was allowed to race clear at De Gea, to retake the lead. Maguire flailed – he is doing too much of this currently – 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 worked their magic for a countless time the prospects of this occurring felt bleak.
On came Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani as Solskjær hoped to somehow conjure a goal. Instead, his team were fortunate the deficit remained the same as Atalanta bossed the final exchanges, the excellent Zapata forcing a late save from De Gea, until Ronaldo saved United again. – Guardian