Cristiano Ronaldo equalised twice at the end of each half to save Manchester United from a dismal Champions League defeat against Atalanta and retain their position at the top of Group F.
Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata both got on the scoresheet for Atalanta at the Stadio di Bergamo, but Ronaldo’s Champions League prowess dug his side out of a hole for the third time this season.
The Italians did not have to be at their best against this subpar iteration of the Red Devils, whose defence and midfield went missing far too often throughout the game.
In an extremely disjointed performance from the English giants, the chief culprits were Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba. Both of them were liabilities in areas they were supposed to control (defence and midfield) and they made several basic mistakes between them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started with the same 3-centre-back formation that almost certainly saved his job against Spurs in the league. Eric Bailly replaced the injured Victor Lindelof, while Pogba and Marcus Rashford started instead of Fred and Edinson Cavani.
The early stages of the match saw United in the ascendancy. A scuffed Scott McTominay shot took a huge deflection off a defender but only went on to hit the post, much to the relief of Juan Musso in goal.
But there were also signs that the Red Devils were vulnerable, Pogba having already given the ball away cheaply early on. It only took Gian Piero Gasperini’s side 12 minutes to capitalize.
It was a simple goal, Zapata beating Aaron Wan-Bissaka down Atalanta’s left before passing it across the box to Ilicic, who opened up his body and fired goalward. David de Gea, who allowed the Slovenian’s shot to squeeze under his body, should have done better, but Atalanta and their fans did not care.
The match quickly became an end-to-end affair. United were on the hunt for an equaliser but looked vulnerable every time the home side attacked. They nearly conceded at the half-hour mark, Pogba giving the ball away poorly in his own half after a throw.
But as the ball dropped for an unmarked Davide Zappacosta, Bailly rushed across to acrobatically block out for a corner. The mercurial Ivorian would go on to have one of his best games in a red shirt, producing several further blocks and interceptions.
Then came an injury setback for United, Raphael Varane unable to continue with a hamstring issue. He was replaced by Mason Greenwood as Solskjaer reverted to a 4-3-3. The French defender is unlikely to feature in the upcoming Manchester derby; another headache for Solskjaer.
The primary worry, however, was the ongoing match. United were lucky to avoid conceding after more mistakes, with Solskjaer fuming on the sidelines as half-time approached. Then came a beautiful team goal.
Ronaldo flicked the ball to Greenwood on the inside-right. Greenwood rolled it into the box for Fernandes, running left to right. Fernandes produced an instant backheel into the path of Ronaldo, who finished emphatically from 12 yards out.
Atalanta were quicker out of the blocks in the second half. As the match began to get hectic, the home side retook the lead in the 56th minute, but only after a long VAR review.
Zapata took a long pass down the left in his stride. He entered the box, held off Maguire and dinked cutely over the onrushing de Gea. The Colombian was initially flagged offside, but a lengthy check revealed that Maguire had played him on. Cue delayed celebrations.
The current scoreline, combined with Villareal’s victory over Young Boys, meant that United would be pushed to third place in the group and be in real danger of elimination. An equaliser was imperative; Solskjaer threw on Nemanja Matic and Cavani for Rashford and the ineffectual Pogba.
It came in the first minute of added time, courtesy of their 36-year-old talisman. The Atalanta defence put a stop to Ronaldo’s run from the left wing but failed to clear the bouncing ball. Greenwood flicked it up to Ronaldo on the right side of the D, and the Portuguese superstar met the dropping ball with a stunning low volley into the bottom-left corner.
This was the third time Ronaldo has saved the Red Devils at the death in the UCL. He has scored in all 4 group games so far. Without him, Ole would surely be out of a job.
The substitute Donny van de Beek then saw a shot blocked by Musso that would have resulted in an undeserved victory. Instead the visitors had to settle for a point that kept them on top of the table. They are ahead of Villareal on goal difference.
But they cannot continue to rely on Ronaldo to pull rabbits out of hats whenever they are in trouble. With the performance on show here, it is very possible that they lose to Villareal and Young Boys and go crashing out of the tournament, just like last year.
And that, surely, would spell the end for Ole.