There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes and Manchester United playing poorly in the Champions League before Cristiano Ronaldo bails them out with a late goal. Make no mistake, this was not Atalanta 2 United 2. This was Atalanta 2 Cristiano 2. The Portugal forward’s brace was among the only bright spots on a drab night for United, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men can take solace from their return to the summit of Group F.
United set their stall out early in the first half, with Ronaldo drawing a save inside twenty seconds. Marcus Rashford then worked himself a shooting opportunity in the box, but his attempt was blocked. The ball found its way to Scott McTominay, whose shot slowly found its way onto the post. Ronaldo provided a throwback when he isolated Davide Zappacosta, showing the sort of shimmying footwork that was his hallmark as a precocious 18-year-old at United.
After the settling performance and result against Tottenham Hotspur, Josip Ilicic brought back the same old doubts when he opened the scoring. Duvan Zapata pulled back brilliantly for the Slovenian forward, whose shot was struck at David De Gea, but with such force that it found its way in. The Spanish stopper, a hero on so many occasions this season, should really have kept it out.
Unlike in the Old Trafford meeting, Atalanta’s goal brought an instant reaction. Ronaldo’s high cross to Luke Shaw saw the England left-back follow his effort into the floor and over. United attacked in waves down both flanks, led by Ronaldo and Rashford. The Portuguese talisman got a little over-enthusiastic in search of an equaliser, at one point bundling Juan Musso over the line for a foul.
Atalanta began to feel their way back into proceedings, exploiting the lax passing of Paul Pogba on a number of occasions. The France midfielder was poor in the first half, allowing himself to be too easily pressed in possession, and frequently giving the ball away as a result. The most egregious example came when Pogba turned towards his own goal, meekly tried a pass that was swiftly intercepted, leaving Eric Bailly to make a brilliant last-ditch block from Zapata.
Bailly was the one bright spot of the early going for United, with the Ivorian making numerous vital interventions. When Raphael Varane went down injured, leading to United abandoning their back three and bringing on Mason Greenwood, his responsibilities increased. When the substitute gave the ball away, Bailly shut down Zapata superbly to prevent another goal.
It was the defender’s ball-winning that led to the equaliser, with his tackle triggering a slick passing move that saw the ball end up with Bruno Fernandes in the penalty box. The playmaker pulled it back to Ronaldo who was never going to miss from such a presentable position. Solskjaer’s side were back in the game, and once again they had Ronaldo to thank for a turnaround.
United got a taste of what was to come early in the second half when Teun Koopmeiners played in Zapata. The forward was flagged offside, but this continued the recurring theme of the Colombian finding himself in goal-scoring positions. The former Napoli forward was a constant threat, and only the excellent Bailly stopped him terrorising United even further.
At the other end, Fernandes drew a magnificent block from Jose Palomino, after the Portugal international capitalised on a Merih Demiral mistake. The Red Devils had another opportunity when Aaron Wan-Bissaka worked hard to tee up Paul Pogba. The Frenchman found Greenwood in the box, but the young forward was flagged offside after hitting the post.
After being warned several times during the game, Zapata finally got his goal. The tireless forward latched onto a long ball over the top, finishing brilliantly past De Gea. A lengthy VAR check followed when the goal was initially flagged for offside, but after an arduous two-minute and six-second wait, the goal was awarded. It was no less than Atalanta deserved, having capitalised on a United side that lacked cohesion throughout.
Solskjaer threw on Edinson Cavani and Nemanja Matic in place of Marcus Rashford and the abject Paul Pogba. United fans could be forgiven for lamenting the fact Donny van de Beek and Jadon Sancho were still on the bench at this point, yet to even warm up. The United manager would finally turn to them with four minutes to go, an unfairly slight duration to make any sort of impact. In the meantime, the 20-time champions of England tried to break down an Italian side who were just far better organised than they were.
One minute into injury time, United got their lifeline, and its source was inevitable. Cristiano Ronaldo once again bailed out his team, scoring a late equaliser to spare the considerable blushes of a game where United were firmly second best. For all the talk of how he fits into the team, and that talk is valid, you cannot argue Ronaldo has done incredible things during his second spell in a United shirt.
The Spurs result flattered to deceive, and against a team with moderate resources but more carefully-considered tactics, United were nearly beaten. The same well-worn questions will be asked, and now there is one less answer to them. Antonio Conte is already in situ as the new Tottenham manager, with the North London club acting quickly and decisively in appointing him. United are in a similar situation to Tottenham, with results and performances at their lowest recent ebb. They have chosen to stick, rather than twist, and have backed Solskjaer to turn it around. An away point isn’t a disaster, and United return to the top of their group. But the performance will surely raise some concerns at Old Trafford.