United qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League with a morale-boosting victory over Villareal


Michael Carrick’s first game in charge as interim boss pays immediate dividends as Reds win 2-0

Villareal v Manchester United had an atmosphere of anxiety and desperation about it with the Reds in freefall, seeking their fifth manager in the last eight years since Alex Ferguson announced his retirement and chose David Moyes as his successor.

Recent thrashings at home and away by Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Saturday’s humiliation at Watford proved too much for the Manchester United hierarchy, who pulled the plug on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s three-year tenure at the club. Woeful performances from the players and discontent among the fans pointed to a club in disarray.

Villareal, too, had their problems. A poor run of form has seen them win just one of their last five fixtures in La Liga, which also included 3 draws and a painful 2-0 loss in the derby to Valencia.

Before kickoff, both teams sat joint first at the top of Group F separated only by goal difference. Tonight’s equation was simple: win and qualify. The result of the later match between Atalanta and Young Boys would then be immaterial.

Playing the Yellow Submarine, managed by the astute, Unai Emery, who triumphed over United in last season’s Europa League final, in their tightly packed home stadium of Estadio de la Cerámica, was hardly the venue Manchester United would have wanted to come to on the back of recent events.

Low in confidence, in poor form individually and as a team, it was down to Carrick on his bow as manager and his coaching staff, Mike Phelan and Kieron McKenna, to rally United’s ragged troops, and breathe new life into them.

Carrick reverted to a 4-3-3 system in possession and 4-4-2 without the ball. Alex Telles came in for the injured Luke Shaw, Fred was restored to midfield, and Donny van de Beek and Anthony Martial got their first starts of the season.

In a very flat first half, Villareal just shaded it on chances created. But the problems in defence once again undermined United, who had David de Gea to thank for a string of smart saves. A lack of creativity, urgency, and composure in midfield saw United players still treating the ball like a hot potato, trying to get rid of it as soon as possible, underlying a lack of confidence and belief in themselves and each other.

Having been overrun somewhat in the first half, Carrick would have hoped for an improved showing in the second. But after 20 minutes of the restart, and no discernible sign of improvement, the interim boss had seen enough. He introduced Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to proceedings at the expense of Van de Beek and Martial, who fluffed their lines, contributing nothing of note on their chance to impress.

United immediately improved. Suddenly there was more purpose, momentum, and threat about their forward movement, giving their defense respite and looking to hurt Villareal in behind.

In the 70th minute, Jordan Sancho nearly opened his account for United with his first goal since his big-money move from Borussia Dortmund. Receiving the ball from Fernandes in the right-hand channel, he jinked his way into the area and got his shot away. Only the outstretched boot of Rulli kept the scores level.

But 8 minutes later United had the lead, with Rulli turning from hero to villain. The Villareal goalkeeper, excellent until this point, gave a horrible pass to former Tottenham and Watford midfielder, Capoue, on the edge of the area. Unable to adjust his feet in time, Fred robbed him and the ball bounced up to Cristiano Ronaldo, who expertly lobbed the stranded goalkeeper to make it 1-0 to United.

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With confidence flooding through the whole team, United made it 2-0 on the stroke of full time. This time Jadon Sancho did get his first goal for the club. A scintillating counterattack saw the ball fizz between man-of-the-match, Fred, McTominay, Ronaldo, and Rashford before the ball arrived at the feet of Sancho twenty yards out. His first touch set him up and his second flew into the top corner of the Villareal goal to give United the win and the cue for wild celebrations

The traveling United faithful who had been in fine cheer all night in a magnificent display of loyal support roared their approval with choruses of ‘We love United, we do.’ And at full time cheered Michael Carrick to the echo.

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In a surprising twist, news reached us during the game that former Villareal and Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has been approached to take the role of interim manager until the end of the season, in case first choice, Mauricio Pochettino, cannot be persuaded to take over immediately.

But tonight was not about future appointments for United, but one for Carrick’s team to savour after so much negativity swirling around the club in recent times. 2-0 to Manchester United and the first clean sheet in 26 matches.

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