Manchester United v Villarreal… A Champions League night at the Theatre of Dreams…

October 2nd, 2021 | Football

What an experience. The Champions League is my favourite competition. Nothing else can rival it. The mouth-watering fixtures, ridiculous score lines, the best players from around . d-to-head, along with the incredible atmospheres created by fans. Ever since becoming a Manchester United fan I’ve wanted to experience seeing my club live on the biggest stage of them all. Last night really was a dream come true. The crisp Manchester air, the lights shining onto the sacred turf, the Champions League anthem playing in the background which you can barely hear due to the buzz and atmosphere created by the fans. As the players took to the pitch the roar from the crowd was deafening, it was electric, I knew this wasn’t just another cup-tie or Premier League clash, this was the Champions League.  This was being in the Stretford End at Old Trafford; this is the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Old Trafford faithful were up for it from minute one. The Red Devils started well, applying early pressure to Villarreal well organised defence. But the yellow submarines came back into it. Time and time again they were counterattacking with intent, bypassing the midfield with relative ease. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s suspension and injuries to both Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire meant Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles and Victor Lindelöf came into the side. Because of this, especially in the first half, Villarreal began putting serious pressure on this much-changed Manchester United back-four, with Raphael Varane the only recognised regular. Luckily for United, David de Gea remained in his current vein of form and produced a number of fine saves to keep the score 0-0 going into half-time. The first half was relatively even in terms of possession, but Villarreal, had all the real attempts of goal and clear-cut chances.

The second half began similarly to the first. Villarreal played through the midfield with relative ease and were confident in knocking the ball around. Eventually a pass was thread through on the right-hand side, Dalot didn’t deal with it, the cross came in and Villarreal opened the scoring at Old Trafford. I’ve been at Old Trafford before when we’ve conceded, and the fans always chant “UNITED!” and try to help the lads move on and get back in the game. I wondered, with it being such an important Champions League game, whether there would be a more toxic, irritated, or annoyed response to the goal conceded. But no, straight away the fans were chanting “UNITED!!!”. There was, understandably, disappointment within the stadium when the goal was conceded, but that was quickly forgotten about and the fans, including myself, straight away tried to get the lads going.  It was a good sharp defiant response, something we’ve come to expect from an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer side and something that is a key part of the United DNA, responding to setbacks. They kept attacking and eventually Mason Greenwood won a free kick in a crossing position, about six yards outside the box. All the lads got in the box, ready for the free kick, Old Trafford was expectant, waiting for a good Bruno Fernandes delivery and hopefully a goal. However, the Portuguese took everyone by surprise and chipped the ball to the edge of the box, taking what seemed an age to come down. Fans were groaning, not understanding why he didn’t elect to just get the ball in the box, but those groans quickly changed to elated cheers as Bruno Fernandes pass pinged to the left foot of Alex Telles, who volleyed home the equaliser from outside the box. Old Trafford was alight. Fans were going mental. A quick response from the reds as they were only behind for seven minutes. Everyone was now thinking “C’mon let’s get the winner!”. Everyone expected United to push on and dominate proceedings, but that’s not how it played out. The game was tight, with both teams having decent spells of play and one or two half chances, but neither side could get into any real rhythm or gain control. The game was drifting. Ole responded. He brought on Edinson Cavani and Nemanja Matic, two subs that really changed the game. Matic is the only natural defensive midfielder in United’s senior ranks and it showed with his display. He brought composure, defensive solidity, and a bit of class. Matic helped United gain control of the game and was progressive with both his passing and ball-carrying. The other sub, Edinson Cavani however was the real impact. He got the crowd going for the first time since the goal. Not that the stadium had gone quiet, far from it, but Cavani gave everyone a boost.  United fans adore the Uruguayan and his display showed why. He chased down any Villarreal player with the ball, ran after passes he had no real chance or right to get onto the end of and applied constant pressure. His energy and desire are infectious. It gave both the team and crowd a lift. It encouraged the other players to give that extra 10% and we began to create one or two more half chances. Cavani missed a brilliant opportunity, failing to convert his header from a fantastic Greenwood cross.

After this decent spell and impact of the subs the game became cagey from the 80th minute onwards. The lads looked tired, out of ideas and the game seemed it was drifting. They hadn’t given up, but there was a bit of an acceptance aura of “it just isn’t our day”. Villarreal burst forwards around the 85th minute mark and had some great chances. A bit of pinball, brilliance from de Gea and an Alex Telles block kept the yellow submarines out.  Ole then rolled the dice and made his final two substitutions, both in the 89th minute. Jesse Lingard and Fred were introduced. The Fred change was down to what looked like a knock to his fellow Brazilian Alex Telles, whereas the Lingard one was Ole trying to mix things up. The Englishmen came on and began causing problems for Villarreal straight away. He was clearly given the licence to get into space in and around the box, something he’s very good at. His movement meant we lost some structure in attack, but the chaotic nature caused the Spanish side to feel a tad unsettled and perhaps happier than ever to take a draw and the point. Lingard was based on the right-wing but was playing more like a second no.10. He kept darting into the six-yard box and was causing Villarreal problems with his movement and energy. Ronaldo recognised the chaotic nature and Lingard’s free-role and could see space developing on the right, created by Lingard’s movement. He drifted into that area for pretty much the entirety of injury time. We began to attack more in injury-time with the Stretford End trying to suck the ball into the net. Lingard had a half-chance saved in the 93rd minute and it seemed that was that. Logically it seemed there wasn’t time for a goal, but I had a feeling we’d get one more chance.

Villarreal got the ball down the right before Fred intervened and won it back. Edinson Cavani then gets the ball and holds off the defender allowing time for support. Fred bombs on from left-back, receives the ball and delivers a decent first-time cross. Realising he can’t go for goal, Ronaldo heads the ball into the six-yard box, where Jesse Lingard making a nuisance of himself. The ball falls for Lingard who is under pressure from both a Villarreal defender and the goalkeeper and in a split second realises two things. Realistically he can’t go for goal, and he then sees the run of Ronaldo on his right. He intelligently pokes the ball to United’s no.7 who did the rest. Ronaldo smashes the ball goalward from a seemingly impossible angle and finds the back of the net in the last minute of injury-time. Old Trafford erupts. The Stretford End is going crazy. The great Portuguese throws his shirt into the air and celebrates another historical moment. “VIVA RONALDO!!!” rings around the stadium. What would have been a disappointing draw and point has become a late win with three vital points on the board. There’s no one United fans would rather have scored that goal then the legend that is Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s proven time and time again why he’s, in my opinion, the greatest player of all time. He wins you games you’d normally draw. He finds a way to get his team what it needs and does so in the most spectacular ways imaginable. He had no right to score from where he was, but he did.  That goal, that moment optimises what United is about. Going for the win, taking risks, getting the ball out wide and getting bodies in the box. A legendary player, a vital goal, and a massive win for United against, on paper, their toughest opponent in the group-stage.

It was a dream come true for me to have witnessed it and I can only say thank you to those who gave me the opportunity to experience that. A 95th minute winner from Cristiano Ronaldo to a win a Champions League game and get the win, with an electric atmosphere and the lights shining down on the pitch on a cold autumnal night. It really was the stuff dreams are made of and it was one of, if not the, best day of my life.

Playing Ratings for Manchester United:

de Gea (9), Telles (7), Varnae (7), Lindelöf (6), Dalot (5), McTominay (6), Pogba (6), Sancho (7), Fernandes (7), Greenwood (7), Ronaldo (8).

SUBS: Cavani (8), Matic (7), Fred (7), Lingard (7.5).


Man of the Match (MOTM): David de Gea:

I can’t lie. In the emotion of the game, my MOTM at the time was Cristiano Ronaldo, understandably so based on the fact he’d just scored the winner from a seemingly impossible angle. But having watched the game back de Gea was clearly MOTM. His saves kept Villarreal out. He was commanding, brought composure and leadership to a heavily changed United defence. Another outstanding performance from the Spaniard, who is probably United’s player of the season so far.

I also wanted to give Ole some credit in this game. I know we didn’t dominate; I know on another day we may have drawn or even lost that game. But he recognised we needed control of the midfield, so brought Matic on for Pogba, a brave substitution. He recognised we needed to bring another presence on the box to disrupt Villarreal’s organised defence, he brought on Cavani and Lingard. He deserves credit tonight. I know the football wasn’t the best, but he made in game changes which won us the game. The two subs were directly involved in the winning goal. Fred won possession to start the attack in the first place and put in the cross which led to the goal. Lingard got the assist for the goal. So, the two subs he made directly won us the game. Let’s give some credit where it’s due because a lot of people have questioned his constant use of Fred and getting brought on in this game, although that was seemingly down to Alex Telles getting a knock, but a lot of people have also questioned why he’s kept Lingard, but he’s proving to be our impact sub, with three direct goal involvements in his last four sub appearances. I know there are flaws like playing Fred when he’s badly out of form, his shocking treatment of Donny van de Beek and at times, a somewhat poor style of play. But today showed why he can’t currently play Pogba in the midfield two, or why he can’t in the big games like this. He isn’t good enough defensively in that position and doesn’t do enough to get involved in the game. So people query the Fred and McTominay partnership, which I get, but it’s a lot better in terms of balance. All I’d say about it is why can’t Matic play more, as he’s the only recognised defensive-midfielder at the club. I’d also like to see van de Beek play in the midfield double-pivot, alongside Scott McTominay as I think he’s good defensively and is more progressive then Fred. But overall, you can’t moan too much when he picks McTominay and Fred as the partnership, especially in the bigger games.


Please note: The football articles that feature on this site are being written by Jack Dixon as part of his work experience. He is a teenager and looking for work experience within the football industry. He is currently studying for his media and art A-levels.