Villarreal vs Manchester United result: Five things we learned as Cristiano Ronaldo seals Champions League qualification

Michael Carrick’s first game in charge ended in a 2-0 victory that saw United progress to the last-16

Tom Kershaw
Tuesday 23 November 2021 20:02
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Michael Carrick’s first game in charge of Manchester United ended in style as Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho struck to seal a 2-0 victory and send the club into Champions League knockout stages.

Despite the tumult of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking on Sunday morning, United knew they could ill-afford to drop points against Villarreal, with their qualification still uncertain.

A cagey first half offered few sparks, with United cautious and lacking attacking imagination as Villarreal came closest to breaking the deadlock.

However, they burst into life after the hour mark as Cristiano Ronaldo pounced to score a fine lob before Jadon Sancho completed the victory with a fantastic strike just before full-time.

Here is everything you need to know:

Carrick’s initial tweaks find few sparks

It wasn’t quite a rewrite of Solskjaer’s script, but there was at least a small degree of separation in Carrick’s first line-up as caretaker. Cristiano Ronaldo started, albeit briefly, on the left ahead of Alex Telles, allowing Anthony Martial to run without any great enthusiasm through the centre. In midfield, Donny van de Beek was finally afforded his preferred role as a No 10 at the expense of Bruno Fernandes. In truth, though, an insipid first-half failed to reveal even a faint flicker of a spark. The front-three were fluid, frequently rotated and yet, the moment United had any meaningful possession, seemed to turn stagnant in an instant. They lacked urgency and ideas and, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the chaos that’s reigned since Saturday, were starkly short of desire to break out of their shell.

United suffer from an infectious loss of confidence

The slow rot has set in over a number of months, stripping at United’s nerves and leaving them ever more prone to the sort of combustion that peaked at Vicarage Road on Saturday. Sometimes, the sacking of a manager can be cathartic, even if undesired. It represents a clean slate, a breath of fresh air from the suffocating pressure. Instead, in this state of purgatory, United understandably seemed more concerned with avoiding disaster. The lack of confidence was infectious. Aaron Wan-Bissaka perhaps epitomised it best, reluctantly dribbling out of defence, the ball getting stuck underneath his feet. But he was far from the only player guilty of hesitancy. Scott McTominay and Fred were cautious for the first hour, and Telles rarely broke forwards on the opposite flank. And the result was a side who, up until the final third of the match, were content to eschew any risks and escape with a draw.

De Gea stands up tallest

If Solskjaer’s fate was already sealed with United’s defeat at Watford, it was David De Gea’s despondent post-match interview that engraved the tombstone. The goalkeeper said it was up to United’s players to take responsibility and not just lay blame at the feet of their manager. And for much of the game, as Villarreal created the clearest chances, it was De Gea who stayed true to those words and stood tallest. A pair of saves in the first half were necessary but by no means spectacular. The Spaniard’s intervention to tip Manu Trigueros’ bouncing shot around the post, though, kept United in with the chance that Ronaldo gleefully took.

Ronaldo steals spotlight again

Ronaldo’s match-winning goals have been the most reliable consistency of United’s campaign in Europe and, although he’s grown frustrated throughout the game, it was of course the 36-year-old who stole in and sealed the three points. The impact of Ronaldo on United’s system is by now well-documented, but there can be no denying his impact on nights like these. Much of the credit must go to Fred, who nipped the ball from underneath Etienne Capoue, and was crucial again in United’s second goal. Ronaldo’s finish, though, was brilliant, flicking the ball over Geronimo Rulli’s head with nonchalant precision.

Carrick leaves with credit to his name

The precariousness of qualification meant this was far from a free-hit for Carrick, who has had scarce time to implement any changes as of yet. There can be little criticism of his game management, though. It might have been uninspiring, but United saw the match out to the hour mark before Carrick introduced Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford from the bench. Their arrival injected the creative spark United had so desperately lacked and seemed to lift the mood and approach of the entire team. In defence, they remained organised and intact, even if Villarreal lacked a clear threat without Gerard Moreno. He seemed to coax more out of Sancho, too, who tried in vain for much of the game until he finally got his reward at the death with a terrific finish into the top corner. There was a lot to lose for Carrick tonight and, in some senses, little to gain with United still all but certain to bring in another interim manager. He leaves with victory, a clean sheet, and his head held high.

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