It’s wasn’t a goal for the highlight reel. It wasn’t one like Cristiano Ronaldo had scored earlier. But the 90th minute winner that put Manchester United firmly on course for the Champions League knockout stage would have been a thing of beauty to Jose Mourinho.
It was a reward for a resolute defensive display, one that had kept United in touch with a superior Juventus side until a remarkable five minutes in which the game turned on its head.
It was injury time when Ashley Young curled in a free-kick that seemed to leave Juve’s defence in chaos. A bundle of players attacked the ball at the far post, Paul Pogba among them. He was claiming the goal, but it looked as if full-back Alex Sandro got the final touch. There was a stunned silence, a moment when it was thought Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan might save the home side – and then he signalled the goal.
MATCH FACTS AND STATS
Juventus: Szczesny, De Sciglio (Barzagli 82), Bonucci, Chiellini, Alex Sandro, Khedira (Matuidi 60), Pjanic, Bentancur, Cuadrado (Mandzukic 90+2), Dybala, Ronaldo.
Subs not used: Perin, Benatia, Cancelo, Rugani.
Goals: Ronaldo 65
Bookings: Alex Sandro, Dybala
Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
Manchester United: De Gea, Young, Lindelof, Smalling, Shaw, Herrera (Mata 79), Matic, Pogba, Lingard (Rashford 70), Sanchez (Fellaini 79), Martial.
Subs not used: Romero, Bailly, Mata, Fred, Darmian.
Goals: Mata 86, Alex Sandro OG 90
Bookings: Matic, Herrera, Martial
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Referee: Ovidiu Alin Hategan.
As for the equaliser, let’s just say the third touch is a charm. Juan Mata had a feel of the ball on two occasions as a substitute, before unleashing the free-kick that brought United level.
They now have two games to ensure they stay up on Valencia’s points total. And while one of those matches is Valencia, away, they will fancy their chances with that. It was a solid defensive display – and the odd slice of luck – that kept them in this game, but it needed Mata’s brilliance with a dead ball to make it count. Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba combined to win the free-kick, but Mata got the last word, a magnificent curling effort that left Wojciech Szczesny clutching at air.
Until that moment it had looked to be Ronaldo’s night. This time he did celebrate. He said he wouldn’t, at Old Trafford, out of respect to his former club and their fans. Here, in the shadow of the Alps, there was no such obligation. So when he scored the goal that looked to have undone so much fine defensive work by Manchester United he celebrated like, well, Cristiano Ronaldo.
He ran to the left of the goal and pulled up his shirt to reveal that washboard torso, a central core so firm and toned a small tower block could be constructed around it with no query from the planning department. How long does Ronaldo work on athletic tone? Probably as long as he works on the first time finishing that flummoxed Manchester United.