A piece of improvisation by Cristiano Ronaldo helped send Manchester United into the last 16 of the Champions League as Michael Carrick’s spell as the English club’s interim manager began with a 2-0 win at Villarreal this morning (AEDT).
Scoring his fifth goal of the group stage, Ronaldo lobbed the goalkeeper with a first time effort in the 78th minute to put United ahead.
Jadon Sancho then scored his first goal since his A$138 million move to United, firing in off the underside of the crossbar in the 90th minute at the end of a sweeping counterattack that used to be a feature of the team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
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Carrick, one of Solskjaer’s assistants, is filling in as a replacement until a more long term interim is found and he put his stamp on the team by dropping Bruno Fernandes and starting Donny van de Beek.
Carrick oversaw a disciplined if limited performance by United until Ronaldo sparked an explosive ending with his 140th goal in the competition.
He has scored in all five group stage matches this season.
United is in first place on 10 points, three more than Villarreal, and is assured of a top two finish ahead of its final Group F game at home to Young Boys in two weeks.
Whether Carrick will still be in charge then remains to be seen, but he has made a strong start to his interim tenure – even if David De Gea kept United in the game with two great saves to deny Manu Trigueros either side of halftime.
In the first half, United sat off Villarreal and was opened up at times, with Ronaldo virtually anonymous playing mostly on the left of a front three with Sancho on the right and Anthony Martial.
He came to life in the second half and his goal was stunning after Fred dispossessed Etienne Capoue following an ill advised pass out from the back by goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
Ronaldo swivelled and placed his right footed lob over Rulli just inside the near post.
Fred also sparked the break that was finished by Sancho in ruthless fashion following a lay off from Fernandes, who came off the bench in the 66th.
“It’s massive for our season,” United captain Harry Maguire said.
“The last couple of months have been nowhere near good enough and we needed to get a result for our season and our fans. We need to make sure that’s just the start and we push on.”
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino expressed his happiness at being coach of Paris Saint-Germain amid speculation he could become the next United manager.
Pochettino said he was aware of what he called “rumours” – “I am not a child,” he said, “I understand what is going on” – but was focused on working at PSG and stressed he still had more than a year and a half left on his contract at the French club.
“I am so happy in Paris St Germain and I am so focused. I was a player in Paris St. Germain, I love the club, I love the fans. It is a fantastic time to be at the club,” Pochettino said.
“My contract is to 2023, this season and one more. I don’t say nothing different. I am really happy at Paris St. Germain, that is a fact.”
United is looking to make a permanent appointment ahead of next season.
“We cannot talk about that for my respect for Paris St. Germain and my respect for another club,” Pochettino said.
“It is not my business, not my problem.”
The Argentine coach, who only joined PSG in January, was speaking at a news conference ahead of tomorrow’s match at Manchester City in the Champions League.
Both teams are looking for a win to qualify for the last 16.
PSG midfielder Marco Verratti said the reports linking Pochettino with United were not a distraction for the players.
“Since I started playing football, I have always heard rumors, we are used to rumors,” Verratti said.
“We have to focus on playing a good game tomorrow. We have trained well.
“It is all about tomorrow, that is our only concern. We are not thinking about any rumors from the outside whatsoever.”