Atalanta vs Man United: Five things we learned as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Champions League legend endures

Atalanta 2-2 Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side looked set for another damaging defeat until Ronaldo struck a late equaliser

Jamie Braidwood
Tuesday 02 November 2021 22:21
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Cristiano Ronaldo scored another late goal against Atalanta to salvage a vital point for Manchester United in the Champions League.

Just 13 days after scoring the winner in a 3-2 thriller at Old Trafford, Ronaldo struck at the death again in Bergamo to rescue a 2-2 draw, with United heading toward another damaging defeat under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United fell behind to Atalanta once again when Josip Ilicic finished under David de Gea early on, before Ronaldo finished off a stunning United move and backheel from Bruno Fernandes to pull Solskjaer’s side level at half time.

Solskjaer’s side conceded again when Duvan Zapata converted from close range, a goal awarded following a lengthy VAR check, before Ronaldo volleyed in a late strike to steal a point.

Here are five things we learned.

Ronaldo saves United again - but concerns remain

Where would Manchester United be without Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League this season? And where does his latest late goal leave United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? If anything, we’re back to where we were two weeks ago, as United overcame a concerning performance to beat Atalanta at Old Trafford - only for those concerns to come to life against Liverpool in a 5-0 thrashing in the Premier League.

This time? United were a shambles defensively, again, and lacked cohesion in a midfield and attack, particularly in the second half, and were rescued by Ronaldo. It again leaves Solskjaer and United in a precarious position ahead of the Manchester derby against Premier League champions City on Saturday. They will need to improve when Pep Guardiola’s side arrive to Old Trafford. Where have we heard that before?

For now, United fans will revel in another big moment for their returning hero. But does anyone have any confidence in United beating City with a performance like that this weekend?

Regardless of systems, United remain a shambles in defence

If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s probably time to accept that the clean sheet United kept against Tottenham on Saturday said more about the Spurs woeful attack rather than it did about Solskjaer’s defence.

United’s defending was poor, verging again on the shambolic, for both Atalanta goals, which in the end were scored against two different systems. Formation can only cover so much of a team’s individual failings defensively and while Harry Maguire will take the most heat for his role in Zapata’s strike, several United players were culpable at different times throughout the match.

The decision to keep back three from Sunday’s win was an understandable one, perhaps, as United looked to match up with Atalanta's system, but there could be no doubt which side looked more comfortable and familiar with their respective gameplan.

United were left exposed down their right side in the move that led to Ilicic’s opener. There were gaps between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Eric Bailey and United, both collectively and individually, did not deal with Zapata’s cut-back. The defensive line for Atalanta’s second was even worse, as United lost the security that had been afforded to them with the back three.

When Varane was forced off with an injury during the first half - which is another Solskjaer decision open to scrutiny after the France international was rushed back from his groin strain - it was interesting to note that the United manager brought on Greenwood and switched back to a four. Either Solskjaer had not been convinced with his side’s performance up to that point or he saw 4-2-3-1 as the best way back into the game - but there were concerning elements to both.

Pogba produces poor display on key Champions League night

It felt as if Paul Pogba needed a big performance against Atalanta, following his sending off against Liverpool and after his United team-mates produced one of the best performances of the season in his absence at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The France international didn’t produce one, in what could be another deciding night in his United future.

Even though Pogba has made a good start to the campaign overall, he needed to make an impact here as he will also be suspended for the next two Premier League games. With opportunities over the next month scarce and his contract up at the end of the season, he needed to make the most of it.

But like United, with Pogba you just don’t know what you’re going to get from week to week. He was perhaps the worst player on the pitch in the spell that followed Atalanta's opener. He lost possession on several occasions after United went 1-0 down, almost costing his side a further goal only to be bailed out by Bailey’s recovering block to deny Zapata.

Pogba’s performance didn’t improve after the break and it was telling that he was the one sacrificed in the second half when United were 2-1 down, when his midfield partner McTominay was looking vulnerable on a yellow card. With Pogba’s opportunities on the left of midfield drying up following Ronaldo’s signing and given his performances when put in midfield, it’s going to be a challenge for Pogba to regain his form before the end of the year.

Atalanta learn lessons to produce valuable result

After blowing a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at Old Trafford last time out, Atalanta produced a much more controlled performance against United in the Champions League, only to concede again at the death.

The Italian side are always entertaining to watch as they relentlessly pursue goals under Gian Piero Gasperini, but that was to their detriment as they threw away three points two weeks ago. United were constantly able to run through Atalanta

It was a different story this time around, even if they were denied the win. To their credit, Atalanta sacrificed some of their attacking principles and were more disciplined. They still carried a threat, too, with the outstanding Zapata producing an immense performance in leading the line after he started on the bench last time out.

While a lot of the focus will be on United following tonight’s result, this is also a night to remember for those in Bergamo - who were denied being able to see Atalanta’s historic runs to the knockout stages in the previous two campaigns.

Group F picture: United retain hope after equaliser

From third in the table to first in a matter of moments, Ronaldo’s equaliser has had a huge impact on the Group F table.

United were close to having to go to Villarreal knowing that a defeat could have seen them eliminated before the final fixture of the group stage.

Now, United can take a point in Spain and know that they would likely finish top if they beat Young Boys at home on the final matchday.

With his three late goals in the group stage earning United five points alone, Solskjaer's side could have been eliminated already if it wasn’t for the 36-year-old.

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