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Manchester United head to Castellon on Tuesday night in a state of turmoil after finally parting ways with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian’s departure was a long time coming, but it sums up the club’s hierarchy to persist with a doomed manager during an international break that could have been used to bed in a new man, only to sack him after the very next game and leave absolutely no time to plan for crucial fixtures against Villarreal and Chelsea.
In the circumstances, a draw would be a very good result for United on Tuesday night. A stalemate would ensure that the Red Devils are level on points with both Villarreal and Atalanta going into the final group game with a better head-to-head record than both.
As such, they would simply need to beat Young Boys at home to guarantee qualification as group winners, which is not a given by any means given United’s recent form. However, they should fancy their chances of sharing the points in Spain on Tuesday night against La Liga’s stalemate specialists. Villarreal have drawn seven of their 13 league games to date this season and seem to have a peculiar tendency to tie with United.
Prior to their meeting at Old Trafford in September, all five meetings between the two had ended level at full-time. That meeting at Old Trafford even seemed destined to end level, but for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp winner. A sixth draw in seven games wouldn’t be at all surprising on Tuesday night.
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Tuesday 5:45pm – Villarreal v Manchester United
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United’s defensive capitulation in recent weeks has been quite staggering. Solskjaer’s side were never impregnable at the back, but to go from a +9-goal difference after five games to a negative goal difference after 12 games takes some doing – especially considering a 3-0 win at Tottenham was sandwiched into that seven-game spell.
United have conceded 13 goals in their last five league games (including that win at Tottenham) and have conceded in all four of their Champions League games to date. It seems unlikely United will suddenly steady the ship on Tuesday, even with Solskjaer’s departure.
At the other end, United have scored a commendable eight goals – which has only been bettered by a handful of sides in Europe this season. They have the attacking talent to trouble any defence in Europe on their day and can certainly do so against a Villarreal side that has conceded an average of more than a goal per game in all competitions this season.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s form has been very much found wanting during United’s atrocious run in the league, but his Champions League form has remained remarkably consistent in the same period.
Ronaldo has scored in every single Champions League game so far this season, including two in a recent rescue act at Atalanta at the beginning of the month. He is the top scorer in Champions League history and shows no signs of slowing down.
Ronaldo is facing a familiar foe on Tuesday night and has scored 14 goals against Villarreal in 20 appearances. Eight of those goals have come away from home and he has only failed to score in one of his last eight visits to the Estadio de la Cerámica. For his image alone, Ronaldo cannot afford to play in the Europa League next spring, and he should help United to a point in Spain.
In many ways, Bruno Fernandes’ recent months is indicative of United’s nose-dive under Solskjaer. Fernandes had bailed his manager out on countless occasions since arriving from Sporting Lisbon in 2020, but the goals have dried up just when Solskjaer needed them most.
There are justifiable claims that Fernandes cannot play with Ronaldo given their recent performances for both United and Portugal, but he has registered five assists in four Champions League games this season – with two of them setting up his compatriot.
Fernandes also set up his Portuguese teammate in the win at Tottenham and has created more chances than any other player in the Premier League this season. He also leads the way for assists in Europe, and will look to rediscover his form following a wretched display at Watford.
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