Cristiano Ronaldo headed in an 81st-minute winner as Manchester United came from two goals down to beat Atalanta 3-2 in a pulsating Champions League Group F match at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
After a poor first-half display, with Atalanta taking a 2-0 lead in at the break, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team turned the game, and possibly its season, around with a thunderous performance.
The pressure was on Solskjaer after Saturday’s 4-2 Premier League defeat at Leicester City and he opted to drop Paul Pogba to the bench but there was little sign of improvement from that switch.
United was disjointed and dispirited in the opening 45 minutes but raised its tempo and the volume from the Stretford End with a relentless push to victory that culminated in the Champions League’s record scorer demonstrating his brilliance in front of goal yet again.
Mario Pasalic put Atalanta ahead in the 15th minute, turning in Davide Zappacosta’s low ball from close range and United, with just one win in its last five games in all competitions, looked drained of belief.
READ: UEFA Champions League: Pique strike secures crucial win for Barcelona
It was no great surprise when the Italian side doubled its lead in the 29th minute with Merih Demiral rising at the near post to glance in an angled header from a Teun Koopmeiners corner.
Fred and Marcus Rashford missed good chances for United before the break but the home side got themselves back into the game in the 53rd minute.
A clever ball from Bruno Fernandes allowed Rashford to cut in from the left and he picked his spot with a shot into the far corner.
Scott McTominay struck the post after connecting with Ronaldo’s cross but although United was pushing for a leveller, the Italians were still a threat and the host was thankful to keeper David De Gea for a superb double save to keep out a drive from Duvan Zapata and follow-up from Ruslan Malinovskyi.
The pressure paid off for United, though, when it drew level with Harry Maguire drilling the ball home at the back post after the static Atalanta defence failed to intercept a Fernandes ball across the box.
Then came the winner as Luke Shaw whipped in a superb cross from the left and Ronaldo rose superbly, timing his jump and his header perfectly to power the ball past Musso.
“I was right behind him. His leap, his timing, it was perfect right in the corner,” Maguire said.
“We see it day in, day out in training and in the goals he has scored throughout his career. He has come up with a massive goal for us again in the Champions League,” he added.
“We got the goals we needed and deserved and I think we deserved the win in the end. Yes, we made it difficult but it is a tremendous victory in the end.”
After the match, Solskjaer took aim at those who had questioned whether Ronaldo, the Champions League record goalscorer, contributed enough work-rate to his side.
“Cristiano is great in front of goal. If anyone wants to criticise him for effort and work-rate just watch this game. Watch how he runs around,” said the Norwegian.
“I was really, really pleased with how he led the line, we asked him to run the channels, drop in, press more, because we are at home.
“He was also even back in his own six-yard box and making blocks at the end, defending, you could see him sprinting.
“He did everything a centre-forward should do, leading the line and defending and of course, the goal is just what he does better than most,” he added.
Ronaldo has scored six goals in eight games for United in all competitions so far this season.
Solskjaer, who has faced plenty of criticism himself after defeat to Leicester City, praised his side’s attitude after going into the break two goals down.
“I thought we played well and they scored a goal out of nothing and then another set piece. But they never stopped believing and kept going,” he said.
Solskjaer bridled at the suggestion that the players had shown they were playing for him, after the criticism of the weekend display.
READ: UEFA Champions League: Chelsea hammers Malmo 4-0, strikers Lukaku and Werner injured
“Don’t disrespect the players. They play for Manchester United and they know they are the luckiest men in the world,” he said.
“Tonight they are the luckiest men in the world because they get to play for Manchester United. That is what so many millions of boys and girls want to do.”
VILLAREAL DEFEATS YOUNG BOYS 4-1
Yeremi Pino and Gerard Moreno scored early goals for Villarreal as itclaimed a first Champions League group stage win in 13 years with a 4-1 triumph over Young Boys in a thrilling game at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern.
The Group F victory moved the Spanish side into third in the standings on four points from three games, behind leader Manchester United (six ) and Atalanta (four). Bottom side Young Boys (three) remains in contention at the halfway stage.
Pino received a gift on his 19th birthday when he was left completely unmarked at the back post from Alfonso Pedraza’s cross to head into the net for his first Champions League goal as Villarreal opened the scoring after six minutes.
Villareal doubled that advantage 10 minutes later after more static defending allowed Morena to head in the second as he found acres of space between two defenders from Dani Parejo’s free kick.
Both teams wasted numerous chances to score in the second period of a hugely entertaining game that will be repeated in Spain when the teams meet again on November 2, but Meschack Elia finally got reward for the home side with 13 minutes to go.
That set up a grandstand finish, but as Young Boys pushed forward in search of an equaliser, it was always going to be vulnerable at the back, and Alberto Moreno and Samuel Chukwueze made the points safe for the visitor with two late strikes.