Manchester United had Cristiano Ronaldo to thank once again as his hat-trick was enough to see off a stubborn Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.
The 3-2 scoreline was a fair reflection on a game that ebbed and flowed in parts, dragging in others, and a magical moment from the great man on 12 minutes lit up what had been a tentative start to proceedings, as neither side really went chasing when out of possession.
Ralf Rangnick was brave enough to play the United legend from the start after a hip flexor problem had ruled him out of the derby day embarrassment at the hands of Manchester City last time out, and the Portuguese’s inclusion was justified as he fired a corker beyond Hugo Lloris from range after excellent work in the midfield by Fred to set him up.
Antonio Conte thought his side had levelled as Ben Davies of all people slotted past David de Gea at the near post after excellent link-up down the left by Heung-Min Son and Sergio Reguilon allowed him to steal a march on the trailing Jadon Sancho, but the flag was raised as United escaped.
It wasn’t for long, though, as Spurs penetrated the right side after an initial Eric Dier attempt from the edge of the area, and Dejan Kulusevski’s cross was adjudged to have been handled by Alex Telles as Jon Moss pointed to the spot.
Talismanic striker Harry Kane duly converted the equaliser as De Gea guessed right, but Spurs had the goal they deserved as they piled the pressure on their hosts, who had shrivelled back into their shells slightly after that initial Ronaldo opener.
But it was that man yet again, Ronaldo, who had Old Trafford bouncing once more, netting merely two minutes later, as Reguilon was caught napping on the far side, playing Jadon Sancho onside from a Nemanja Matic clipped through ball, and Sancho laid a gorgeous opportunity on a plate for Ronaldo, who slotted beyond the helpless Hugo Lloris.
Spurs didn’t half have their chances, as Son slid a shot just wide of the target on the hour after good build-up between Kulusevski and Kane, and Dier saw his header cleared off the line by Diogo Dalot as Conte’s side struggled to convert the opportunities presented to them by a less-than convincing United defensive unit.
However, Harry Maguire’s misery this season was compounded yet again as he turned beyond his own goalkeeper, poking a Sergio Reguilon cross into his own net to pile on the defensive mishaps for Rangnick and Man United, as Spurs took advantage of their hosts presenting them with opportunities to pile on the pressure.
But who else, than Ronaldo, the hero of the night once again for United, as ‘Viva Ronaldo’ rang around Old Trafford, as he rose highest with eight minutes to go, and his towering header from an Alex Telles corner stole the points for Rangnick and his men.
They were defensively frail, but Rangnick won’t care about that, though, as his side picks up a much-needed three points in a pivotal moment of the race for the top four, but there is work to do in midweek against Atletico Madrid, and more pertinently, in the Premier League if they are to hunt down Arsenal, who have four games in hand.
TALKING POINT – CAPTAIN CRISTIANO?
It was a quality display from the great Ronaldo, but it was another shaky performance put in by the man with the armband Maguire, and it could well spark more discourse surrounding the club captaincy.
The divide caused by Ronaldo’s presence in the dressing room has been well-documented due to the leaks in the media in recent months, and the Portuguese striker showed why he might deserve a crack at leading the side out after leading by example yet again, with his three goals equating to three potentially huge points for United in the race for the Champions League.
Meanwhile, Maguire put past his own goakeeper and struggled to contend with Kane’s tricky movement when dropping deeper, and he appeared overwhelmed by the threat of Kulusevski driving inside at pace when he shook himself free of Telles’ attentions.
A tricky decision for Rangnick could well be made in the coming days and weeks.
Man Utd: de Gea 6, Dalot 7, Varane 6, Maguire 4, Telles 6, Fred 6, Matic 7, Pogba 6, Rashford 5, Sancho 6, Ronaldo 10, Elanga 6, Cavani 6, Lindelof 6.
Spurs: Lloris 6, Romero 6, Dier 6, Davies 6, Doherty 5, Bentancur 6, Hojbjerg 6, Reguilon 6, Kulusevski 7, Kane 7, Son 6, Lucas 6, Bergwijn 6, Winks 6.
MAN OF THE MATCH – CRISTIANO RONALDO, MANCHESTER UNITED
He won the game by himself for the hosts, who didn’t look comfortable at all times in this game, and they were under pressure for much of the 90 minutes.
But there seemed to be a bit more of a complete nature to the number seven’s game, as he dropped deeper than usual to get more involved in the build-up, and it allowed United to look more fluid in their attacking play and make runs in behind, into the space left by Ronaldo’s off-the-ball movement.
He showed all sides of his finishing game: his sheer quality with his first from range, his predatory instincts for the second, and his desire and aerial ability to seal the hat-trick.
Pure, Portuguese perfection.
12′: GOALLL!!!! What a goal! That man, yet again! Ronaldo! United ahead, and it all stemmed from good work from Fred with a delicate flick, and from outside the area, a Ronny rocket puts United a goal to the good.
18′: NO GOAL! Spurs think they’re level as Davies puts it in after excellent work down the left between Reguilon and Son, but the left centre-back sees the flag raised as he tucks it beyond de Gea.
35′: PENALTY! And in the second wave of pressure, Kulusevski skips past Sancho, and his cross is adjudged to have been handled by Telles! Penalty for the visitors! // GOALLL!!! They’re level, and it’s their main man, Harry Kane, on the spot! No mistake, 1-1.
38′: GOALLL!!! He doubles his money!!! Ronaldo puts United back in front, as Sancho is slid in over the top by Matic, Reguilon steps up late, and it’s a gorgeous ball from the England international, and the veteran striker nets yet again. 2-1!
72′: GOALLL!!! Own goal, Harry Maguire! They’ve been inviting pressure onto themselves, and it’s the captain who turns it beyond his own keeper from the Reguilon cross! 2-2!
81′: GOALLL!!! He’s done it again, hat-trick hero Ronaldo! He rises highest, and the towering header puts United ahead again!