It all went wrong for Manchester United. Defensive problems abounded on a night where they were stretched to breaking point in their first ever meeting with Atalanta. And yet, United walked away with all three points and yet another eminently-replayable Cristiano Ronaldo goal that you will see on social media every five minutes for the next week.
Marcus Rashford, making his first start since returning from surgery, was a man on a mission from the first whistle. He went too quickly and was flagged offside after spurning an early chance. The England international was a constant threat though, buzzing around the defenders mischievously with his pace and invention. His team were soon swatted though by Mario Pasalic giving Atalanta the lead. Former Chelsea man Davide Zappacosta squared for the German midfielder to slot a close-range finish past David De Gea.
The goal seemed to spark United into life, particularly one Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar motored to the right-hand byline to swing a cross in for Fred. The midfielder struck his shot well, forcing a good save from Juan Musso. Seeming to take their losing position personally, Ronaldo then teed up Bruno Fernandes for a blocked shot. Next, the old stager tried to go it alone, once again bombing down the right before powering a shot straight at Musso.
For all this endeavour, it was Atalanta who would effect the scoreline again. Merih Demiral out-jumped Harry Maguire at a corner to power home a header. The on-loan Juventus defender had foiled United at the other end, before making the ultimate impact in the home penalty box.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side closed out the half with a pair of big chances, in what was developing into a very open game. First, Fred dragged what looked to be a gilt-edged opportunity wide of the mark. Then Rashford latched onto a long ball with the goalkeeper out of position, but could only fire a hard shot against the crossbar.
He always has to have his say, and he's come up with another big goal for Man Utd in the Champions League!
From 0-2 down to 3-2 up!
United came out with the renewed purpose in the second half. Solskjaer is usually an affable figure in public, but one wonders if he may have inherited elements of the famed hair dryer that once blew through the Old Trafford home dressing room. Whatever the case, Rashford belatedly gave the United faithful something to cheer when he collected a beautiful Fernandes pass wide on the left and cooly finished in the far corner.
The next few minutes were a white-knuckle ride for an Atalanta defence weakened by the half-time departure of an injured Demiral. Ronaldo was brought down by a near-rugby tackle from Matteo Lovato, the first of three players booked in a five minute period of chaos for the Serie A club. Scott McTominay hit the post, before Ronaldo drew a full stretch save from Musso at the end of a smooth passing move.
Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani were thrown into the fray as United chased the latest in a long line of miracles. These nerve-shredding conclusions are part of Old Trafford folklore, but they do seem to be occurring with alarming frequency nowadays. Ferguson’s United usually controlled games, Solskjaer’s version spend most of their time chasing them.
Duvan Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskiy drew a pair of wonderful saves from the resurgent David De Gea. If there is any solace to be taken from being the last line of defence in a side as fraught as this, it is that the Spaniard has re-asserted himself as one of the world’s finest goalkeepers.
A captain’s contribution from Harry Maguire restored parity. Fernandes fired a deep cross into the box which escaped the attention of the Atalanta defence. The ball arrived at the far post for Maguire to drive into the bottom corner, as the roof came off Old Trafford. The sense that this game had another goal in it was palpable.
Of course, as inevitably as night follows day, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who scored it. Luke Shaw curled in a superb cross and Ronaldo rose with that jump we have seen time and again, that jump where the fans start celebrating before head even meets ball. Everyone in the ground knows where the ball is going. By the time he lands, hitting the ground a half-second after the ball nestles inside the Atalanta goal, not a single person at Old Trafford remains in their seat. These are the moments they brought Ronaldo home for. No he doesn’t press. Yes he’s 36. Yes he wanted to go to Manchester City. But when you’re up against it in an important game, there’s nobody you would rather see on the end of that cross.
In truth, this result answers none of the questions that surround Solskjaer and his team. They still lean heavily on individual brilliance, they are still defensively porous and they still struggle to accommodate a galaxy of stars into an eleven-strong constellation. But once again we stand in the aftermath of a rollicking night of Champions League chaos that is inexplicable but boundlessly entertaining. Whether they’ll be producing similar in the knockout stages is anyone’s guess.
Thomas Tuchel's men will be holding their breath over the fitness of Lukaku and Werner, but they've done the job out on the pitch.
Elsewhere, the European Champions Chelsea romped home 4-0 against Malmo. Their joy was tempered by losing Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner to injury. A great three points on the night, but those high-profile occupants of the treatment table will give coach Thomas Tuchel cause for concern in the coming weeks.
Andreas Christensen set the tone just nine minutes into proceedings, scoring his first ever Chelsea goal. Next came a goal from the penalty spot by Jorginho, a result of Lukaku’s tangle with Lasse Nielsen in which he picked up his injury. Kai Havertz added the clincher after the break, before Jorginho added gloss with another penalty. Chelsea sit second in Group H after securing their second Champions League win of the season.
Wednesday's Champions League Results
Man Utd 3-2 Atalanta
Chelsea 4-0 Malmo
Benfica 0-4 Bayern
Zenit 0-1 Juventus
Young Boys 1-4 Villarreal
Lille 0-0 Sevilla
Barcelona 1-0 Dinamo Kiev
Salzburg 3-1 Wolfsburg