Manchester United qualified for the Champions League last 16 by beating Villarreal 2-0 in the first match of the post-Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era on Tuesday.
With Solskjaer having departed as manager after the 4-1 embarrassment at Watford last weekend, Michael Carrick was tasked with leading the Red Devils in their fifth Champions League group game of the season.
After a largely uneventful 77 minutes at Estadio de la Ceramica, in which Manu Trigueros and Jadon Sancho had the best of the chances, Cristiano Ronaldo lofted in his 799th senior career goal to put his side in front.
Sancho, who failed to score under Solskjaer, made certain of United’s place in the knockouts with an emphatic finish at the end of a flowing counter-attack.
United fans sang boisterously in support of Solskjaer and Carrick as kick-off was delayed due to an apparent problem with the referee’s communication system.
Scott McTominay headed into the side-netting but the best of the early chances fell to the home side, David de Gea saving from Moi Gomez and Yeremi Pino hitting the wrong side of the net from a loose ball.
De Gea saved superbly one-handed to tip away Trigueros’ first-time shot before Ronaldo’s first sight of goal saw him head straight at Geronimo Rulli from an Alex Telles cross.
Neither side seemed eager to force the issue but De Gea was called upon to make another brilliant save from Trigueros after a loose ball deflected to him in the United box.
Rulli saved well from Sancho as United began to look the more likely to find a winner, but the Villarreal keeper turned villain when his lazy pass was pounced upon by Fred, allowing Ronaldo to spin and lob the ball into the unguarded net.
Fred was again instrumental for the second, winning back possession to trigger a swift break involving Ronaldo, McTominay and Rashford, with Sancho applying a powerful finish.
3 – Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike against Villarreal was the third time he has scored a match-winning goal in the final 15 minutes of a Champions League match this season – the most by a player in a single season in the competition (excluding extra-time). Clutch. pic.twitter.com/x80wktZzOy OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 23, 2021
What does it mean? Carrick keeps United on track in Europe
Amid the tumult of the Watford loss and Solskjaer’s exit, it always seemed unlikely Carrick would conjure significant improvements in just 48 hours.
As it was, United looked far more resolute defensively as they kept just a third clean sheet of the season in all competitions.
The substitutions then helped to swing the contest in United’s favour before Ronaldo’s clever finish and a brilliant Sancho strike.
De Gea to the rescue
De Gea is one of the few United players to have sustained good form for most of this season and their defeat at Watford could have been far worse were it not for the Spain goalkeeper.
His save from Trigueros in the second half came at a critical time, after Villarreal had been given a rare chance inside the United box.
Nothing new from Van de Beek
Van de Beek’s goalscoring cameo against Watford seemed like a final death knell for Solskjaer’s tenure and he was immediately rewarded with a start in place of Bruno Fernandes here.
However, the Netherlands midfielder offered little to the proceedings, completing just one pass in the final third in 65 minutes on the pitch.
Key Opta facts
– Michael Carrick is the first English manager to win his first game in charge of Manchester United (excluding second spells) since Walter Crickmer in November 1931.
– Manchester United are unbeaten in six UEFA Champions League games versus Villarreal (W2 D4) – against no side have they faced more often without losing in the competition (also CSKA Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen six games each).
– Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike for Man Utd against Villarreal was the third time he has scored the match-winning goal in the final 15 minutes of a Champions League match this season – the most a single player has ever done so in a single season in the competition (excluding extra-time).
– Cristiano Ronaldo has scored six goals for Manchester United in this season’s UEFA Champions League; only Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004-05 (8) has ever scored more for an English club in a single group phase of the competition.
– Jadon Sancho scored his first ever Manchester United goal in what was his 15th appearance and from his 11th attempted shot in all competitions.
On matchday six, United host Young Boys and Villarreal head to Atalanta on December 8. Before then, the Red Devils must prepare to face Premier League leaders Chelsea on Sunday.