Updated:Nov 3, 2021 4:30 pm
Cometh the hour cometh the man. Cristiano Ronaldo once again proved that he is invaluable to this current Manchester United side as he produced two pieces of magic at the end of each half to steal a 2-2 draw for the visitors, and cement their place at the top of the Champions League Group F alongside Villarreal.
This was Manchester United’s first visit to the Gewiss stadium in Bergamo, and despite the 21,747 seat stadium at half capacity because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Atalanta Tifosi were in full voice throughout, creating a cauldron of noise as they roared the hosts on.
In response, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side started brightly enough, although they were nearly undone with four minutes on the clock when a deflected shot from Scott McTominay hit the post and bounced to safety with Atalanta keeper Juan Musso rooted to the spot. The lucky break seemed to galvanise the men in blue and black and after 13 minutes, they took the lead.
Again, it was McTominay involved, but this time, his intervention was less than positive as he inadvertently diverted a forward pass to Duvan Zapata. The Colombian forward, all muscular hustle and bustle, cut inside Aaron Wan Bissaka with ease, and crossed for the unmarked Josip llicic. His shot on goal was less than convincing, but it somehow squirmed under the body of David de Gea and into the United net to put Atalanta one up.Embed from Getty Images
The bad news continued for United when late in the first half, Raphael Varane, just back in first-team action after his recent groin injury lay-off, sat down on the pitch and signaled to the bench that his night was done.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer responded by replacing the injured Varane with Mason Greenwood. And it was the young forward’s brilliant combination move with Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo that brought United level just on the stroke of halftime.
United played the ball through midfield to Pogba, who found McTominay in space in the centre of the park. A quick pass to Fernandes was worked via Ronaldo to Greenwood on the edge of the box. His first-time pass picked out the forward run of Fernandes, who back-heeled to the onrushing Cristiano Ronaldo. In a flash, the Portuguese striker had buried the ball in the bottom left-hand corner. It was a breathtaking sequence of combination play at its very best: high tempo pass and move, skill, momentum, topped off a sublime finish.
United came out in the second half with more urgency, sensing that Atalanta was there for the taking, hemming them in around their 18-yard box. But against the run of play, a long punt upfield from ex Chelsea full-back Davide Zappacosta found the ever-dangerous Zapata. Kept onside by Maguire, he outpaced the United captain and lifted the ball over De Gea to fire Atalanta ahead.
The Italian side grew in confidence, threatening the United goal with more frequency. And but for the excellent Eric Bailly, here deputising for the injured Lindelof, they would surely have gone further ahead. Time after time, the Ivory Coast international threw himself into goal-saving blocks and vital interventions which kept United in the match.
A change needed to happen. And with 25 minutes to go, Solskjaer took off the below-par Pogba and the disappointingly anonymous Marcus Rashford bringing on Nemanja Matic to firm up the midfield and Edinson Cavani to add potency up front. This gave United a better shape and more discipline and the men in red responded with waves of attack. But United needed more. On came Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek with five minutes to go. Still, they could not breach the Atalanta defense, well marshaled here by Danish centre-back, Joakim Maehle and on-loan Juventus defender Merih Demiral.
With time running out, Atalanta just had to see out the game to leapfrog United in the Group F table. But as the clock nudged into ‘Fergie time’, one of the former manager’s favourite sons produced the star quality to save the day and take a vitally important away point.
In the 92nd minute, Sancho fed Ronaldo, who slid in van de Beek on the left wing. The Dutchman’s cutback missed Mason Greenwood and was half-cleared to Ronaldo who recycled the ball along the edge of the 18-yard box. As defenders closed in on him, the ball squirted through to Mason Greenwood. His touch looped the ball into the air and as it came down, Ronaldo sent a rocket of a volley into the net past Musso’s despairing dive. Cue delirium as the entire team celebrated the goal with the traveling support as United’s love affair with the last gasp continued.Embed from Getty Images
2-2 was a fair result on the balance of play. But in truth, without the man of the match, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the heroics of runner-up Eric Bailly, United could well be on the brink of elimination from the Champions League for a second season running.
This was a feel-good finish to a match that showed familiar flaws in their defense and midfield, which need to be addressed if they want to progress further, and not only in this competition. For now, they sit on top of Group F, but tougher challenges await. Not least in the derby against Manchester City at the weekend, where they will have to be much better if they want to avoid more humiliation at home. But United fans will take heart that the football gods have bestowed upon them the second coming of their prodigal number 7, the magic Cristiano. And with him in their side, anything could happen.