Manchester United 3 Atalanta 2
Manchester United continue to be a heart-palpitating proposition who cannot control matches. But, they also continue to be a thrilling team, who stank the first half out, then put on a show that featured Cristiano Ronaldo heading the winner with minutes left.
If this was not quite as late as his clincher against Villarreal it unleashed the same cocktail of relief, delirium and disbelief among fans. And the bottom line is Atalanta are no longer Group F leaders and United have six points from three games.
The questions, though, will and should continue about what United can actually win but, for the moment, this was another Old Trafford night to shake the head at, the type Ole Gunnar Solskjær will still hope to eradicate.
After the 4-2 capitulation at Leicester Solskjær reacted by dropping Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Jadon Sancho, as he turned to Fred, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford to try and secure a second win in the competition against an opponent who trounced Empoli 4-1 on Saturday.
Atalanta had qualified for the knock-out phase in the past two seasons, while Solskjær said his XI had “legs” and was a “4-2-4 more or less”, which seemed strange after his recent admissions that United had been too open.
His stated intent for United to start on the front foot seemed more in tune and when McTominay released Rashford early on Atalanta were warned, despite an offside flag. Yet this proved a false dawn in what became a dismal first half for United. When Davide Zappacosta burst from the right and shredded the home defence until Harry Maguire did enough to stymie the wide forward, this was the truer omen.
Gian Piero Gasperini's men were quickly into their stride as Joakim Mæhle, José Luis Palomino and Mario Pasalic tapped the ball about, and Luis Muriel pressed eagerly off the front. United could not settle – there was a franticness all too evident when Mason Greenwood fed Bruno Fernandes and he overcooked a 40-yard ball aimed at Rashford.
Fifteen minutes in United fell asleep. Josip Ilicic fed Zappacosta, and with no one tracking, he crossed from the right to a lurking Pasalic who slid in the opening goal. A grim-faced Solskjær may have wondered where all the training ground instruction had gone.
This was a true test for a side whose low confidence was being pummelled. The response was good – initially – as Ronaldo scooped over a ball which Fred struck fiercely, forcing a save from Juan Musso. But Luke Shaw's resulting corner amounted to nothing and Solskjær came to the technical area: a sure sign of concern.
What the manager saw was Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Rashford, Ronaldo, Fernandes and Greenwood take the fight to their visitors in a passage that invigorated the home crowd. Once more, though, disappointment ensued as United were breached far too easily. Teun Koopmeiners swung a corner over from the right, Shaw and Maguire dozed, David de Gea failed to come and punch, and Merih Demiral headed in.
United were poleaxed and close to descending into a shambles. The truth was Atalanta had not played exhibition football. They merely probed Solskjær’s team and found them fragile. Fred’s miss of a gaping goal as the interval beckoned summed United up, though a Rashford shot that skimmed the crossbar bar was more hopeful. Not, though, the boos that greeted the half-time whistle.
Yet again Solskjær and United stared down the barrel of a wounding defeat so the next 45 minutes were crucial. When Ronaldo latched on to a Fernandes ball the deficit should have been reduced to one goal but he unloaded straight at Musso and Solskjær groaned.
Courage was required and Rashford showed it by scoring impressively. Fernandes’s pass was pinpoint, allowing the No 10 to scamper forward and, as Musso closed the angle, the finish was cool, going in at the far corner.
Old Trafford was lit up and a Ronaldo charge forward caused Matteo Lovato to foul and Szymon Marciniak to book the substitute. Pasalic and Marten de Roon followed into the referee's book as United surged, McTominay soon hitting Musso's left post from a Greenwood pass. As a riposte this was all fine but with at least one more goal needed Solskjær sent on Pogba and Edinson Cavani, for McTominay and Rashford.
Cavani went to centre forward and Ronaldo left, with Pogba given a floating role. De Gea had to save fierce efforts from Duván Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi. Solskjær introduced Sancho for Greenwood but now came a crucial contribution from Maguire, the captain swinging at a lolloping Fernandes cross, that first skimmed Cavani’s head, before the defender scored.
Better was to follow as Ronaldo did what he does so well: score precisely when it matters, as this team’s go-to act. – Guardian