PARIS: Energised by a change of manager and another opportunistic finish by Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League with a game to spare on Tuesday.
Another newly-appointed coach sill has work to do, though, to get Barcelona into the last 16.
United were led for the first time by Michael Carrick following the weekend firing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, just like his predecessor, the interim manager was left to be thankful for a goal by the Champions League’s record scorer.
Ronaldo produced a sublime lobbed finish to put United ahead against Villarreal and a 90th-minute strike by Jadon Sancho his first goal since joining for $100 million in the offseason sealed a 2-0 win to secure progress as the winners of Group ‘F’. Ronaldo has scored in all five group games so far, and now has a record-extending 140 Champions League goals in his career.
“It’s not an important result for me personally. It’s an important one for the players and the club,” said Carrick.
Another English side, defending champions Chelsea, also advanced on the back of a 4-0 win over already-qualified Juventus, who slumped to their heaviest ever loss in the Champions League.
Barca, now coached by former star midfielder Xavi Hernandez, have advanced from their group every season for almost two decades but a 0-0 draw at home to Benfica means the Spanish club might need to beat Bayern Munich in the final round of games to advance.
All four teams in Group ‘G’ are separated by three points and could still qualify heading into their last games after wins for Lille and Sevilla over Salzburg and VfL Wolfsburg, respectively.
RONALDO DELIVERS AGAIN
Ronaldo had already scored two winners and a late equaliser in the Champions League this season before his smartly taken go-ahead goal against Villarreal in the 78th minute, prompted by Fred winning the ball high up the field.
And both Fred and Ronaldo featured in a counterattack that ended with Sancho, so often a peripheral figure since his big-money move from Borussia Dortmund in the close-season, smashing a shot in off the underside of the crossbar to seal the win.
Carrick made a big call in his first game in charge by dropping playmaker Bruno Fernandes in a bid to set up in a more solid fashion and protect a defence that has been overrun this season. It led to a first clean sheet of the group stage.
More joy was to follow as Atalanta’s wild 3-3 draw at Young Boys meant United cannot be displaced as group leader courtesy of their superior head-to-head record against Villarreal, who are three points back in second place. Atalanta are a point further back.
Late goals from Vincent Sierro and Silvan Hefti gave Swiss champions Young Boys a 3-2 lead in Bern, but Luis Muriel struck in the 88th minute for the visitors.
Atalanta face a winner-takes-all match against Villarreal in Bergamo next month.
BITTERSWEET FOR CHELSEA
It was a bittersweet night for Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel.
The thrashing of Juventus, achieved courtesy of goals by academy graduates Trevoh Chalobah, Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi as well as a fourth by substitute Timo Werner, was marred by knee injuries to key players N’Golo Kante and Ben Chilwell.
Kante went off in the first half at Stamford Bridge while Chilwell looked in agony as he was helped off the field in the 71st.
The Blues dominated the early stages and took the lead through young defender Chalobah’s third goal of the season.
England right-back Reece James hammered a fine volley into the bottom corner to net for the fifth time already this term in the 56th minute. Chelsea grabbed their third goal less than two minutes later, Ruben Loftus-Cheek prodding the ball to Hudson-Odoi, who smashed home from close range.
There was still time for Werner, making his first appearance since an injury layoff, to come off the bench and score in added time.
Chelsea and Juventus are tied on 12 points with a game left to play while Zenit St. Petersburg are assured of finishing third in Group ‘H’ and going into the Europa League knockout stage after drawing 1-1 at Malmo.
Barca missed a string of chances at the Camp Nou and stayed two points ahead of Benfica in Group ‘E’.
If Barca fail to beat Bayern away, Benfica could overtake the Spanish club with a win at home to already-eliminated Dynamo Kiev. If they finish tied on points, Benfica would advance courtesy of their head-to-head record.
Helping Barca is the fact that Bayern have little to play for except, maybe, the chance to knock out a historic rival, albeit one that has lost its aura following the departure of Lionel Messi and other big-name players amid financial problems.
“We played well but there’s a bitter aftertaste because we were here to win tonight,” Barca defender Ronald Araujo told uefa.com. “In front of our fans, our people — and now we simply must go and win in Munich.”
Bayern had already qualified for the last 16 before their 2-1 win at Dynamo Kyiv and the result secured the German champions first place in the group.
Robert Lewandowski with an overhead kick and Kingsley Coman scored the goals for a threadbare Bayern squad missing nine players, with seven unavailable because either they tested positive for the coronavirus or were unvaccinated and had contact with a positive case.
Lille moved top of their group after Canada striker Jonathan David scored his 12th goal of the season to seal a 1-0 win over Salzburg, who dropped a point back in second.
Sevilla jumped into third place, above Wolfsburg, with a 2-0 victory over the German team thanks to goals by Joan Jordan and Rafa Mir.
In the final games, Wolfsburg host Lille and Salzburg are at home to Sevilla.
Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2021