Football

Ronaldo remains the Champions League king – can he drag Man Utd to European glory in 2022?

24 Nov 2021 | 06:58

There are issues for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s successor to solve, but with their No.7 on fire in Europe, the Red Devils can’t be ruled out of contention

The manager might have changed as Manchester United enter a new ‘interim’ era in the dugout, but on the pitch on Tuesday it was an all too familiar Champions League story.

Popping up with a decisive goal when his team needs it most is what Cristiano Ronaldo has built his illustrious career on, and yet again it was him who proved the hero for United against Villarreal as the Red Devils booked their place in the knockout rounds.

He is the first player to ever find the net in the first five games of an English club’s Champions League campaign, with his 78th-minute lob over Geronimo Rulli the third time he has scored the match-winner in the final 15 minutes of a European game since his return to United.

He also netted the stoppage-time equaliser in Bergamo against Atalanta at a time when they were at real risk of elimination, with only the opening night defeat against Young Boys not including a late Ronaldo intervention in their run so far.

The way United have played in Group F makes it difficult to believe that they have managed to qualify for the last 16 with a game to spare, but that is where they find themselves thanks to Ronaldo’s heroics.

“It’s what he does, in the big games and big moments when you need something he’s there to deliver,” caretaker boss Michael Carrick said after his side ran out 2-0 winners in Spain.

“He’s got a cold and calculated mentality, he’s so calm, and doesn’t snatch at the chances.”

There might be tactical issues that the new man in charge will need to figure out when it comes to fitting Ronaldo into a functional line-up, but in terms of earning the club millions for their European progression, the United hierarchy will feel their investment in bringing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner back to Old Trafford has been worth it thus far.

Though they were indebted to David de Gea for keeping the score at 0-0 before Ronaldo’s latest strike, there were positive signs for the travelling supporters at El Madrigal, who consistently sang the names of both Solskjaer and Carrick from behind their perspex screen in the away end.

The midfield yet again found life difficult when out of possession, but Fred played a key role in both goals, with the second the kind of strike many expected from United following their summer spending, as Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes combined on the counterattack to play in Jadon Sancho for his first goal in a United shirt.

Despite that, the majority of fans would agree that Carrick is not the right man to take this club forward, but there is a feeling that the right appointment – be than an interim or permanet one – could yet turn United into Champions League challengers in the new year.

Before Frank Lampard was sacked by Chelsea, few would have backed the Blues to win last season’s Champions League, and yet they were the ones lifting the trophy in Porto in May after Thomas Tuchel got them moving in the right direction.

The same could be said for 2019 winners Bayern Munich, who sacked Niko Kovac and replaced him with Hansi Flick mid-season before going on to win the treble.

The difference between those cases and United is that Chelsea and Bayern are two of the best run clubs in Europe, whereas the 21-time English champions have lurched from one poor decision to the next in the eight years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

United may have the Champions League’s record goalscorer with a supremely talented supporting cast around him at one end, and a goalkeeper back at the top of his game at the other, but their European destiny will likely depend on those selecting the new manager in the boardroom.

That Carrick was only given 48 hours to prepare for the club’s biggest game of the season is indicative of the way they do their planning, and all previous evidence makes it difficult to believe that they will get this next call right either.

But if they do, then some of the key pieces are there for Manchester United to be contenders when the knockout rounds begin in February.

It is a big ‘if’, but if Ronaldo believes it can happen, then every supporter should too.