Cristiano Ronaldo made a triumphant return to Old Trafford as his Juventus side eased to a 1-0 UEFA Champions League Group H win over Manchester United, with Paulo Dybala’s first-half strike proving decisive.
It was a dominant display by the Bianconeri, who could have won far more comfortably than the scoreline suggested, and United must now head to the Allianz Stadium knowing they are likely playing for second spot at best in order to progress to the knockout stages.
United had won four of the last six meetings, but came into this on the back of just five wins from 12 games in all competitions and, not for the first time, they made a slow start. Quite literally. For the team coach got stuck in the chaotic Manchester traffic and arrived late. United wanted to avoid a repeat of the scenes during the last matchday which eventually saw them fined €15,000 (around £13,000) by UEFA for their late arrival and the subsequent delayed kick-off against Valencia.
AS IT HAPPENED: Man Utd v Juventus
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United changed their plans this time around in a bid to avoid a repeat, but with the bus once again stuck, the Special One decided to walk among mere mortals.
Mourinho revealed that he walked to Old Trafford ahead of the clash after Red Devils’ team bus once again got caught up in traffic, telling BT Sport: “I walked in a hoodie, in the middle of the fans, no one recognised me. I took two minutes.”
It took slightly longer than that before Juventus took command, however, although United were content to allow Juventus plenty of possession in the first 15 minutes while attempting to play on the break with the pace of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
The visitors had the first real chance after 13 minutes when Dybala got on the end of Juan Cuadrado’s cross from the right but could not quite direct his header on goal.
Neither goalkeeper was forced to make a save in the first 15 minutes and United’s best early effort came from a Paul Pogba header from Juan Mata’s free-kick that he did well to nod goalward from an awkward height, but Wojciech Szczesny gathered with ease.
But a goal was not long in coming. Having had a warning just moments earlier from Dybala, the Argentina striker put the visitors in front after 17 minutes and Ronaldo was the provider. The 33-year-old, in oceans of space behind United left-back Luke Shaw, latched on to Joao Cancelo’s pass down the right and flashed the ball towards the near post. Nilsson Lindelof and Cuadrado challenged for the ball and Cuadrado managed to help the ball across the face of goal to an unmarked Dybala, who slotted home.
It could have been two soon after when right back Cancelo played a neat one-two with Ronaldo and strode towards the corner of the United penalty area before unleashing a fierce drive that David De Gea did well to save.
Juventus, who made a record start to the season with 10 wins and a draw coming into this, had their tails up and started to dominate. And once they did, there looked no way back.
Dybala found himself with oceans of space in the centre of the box and only a last-ditch block from Chris Smalling prevented a second, Rodrigo Bentancur headed over from a corner, and De Gea was forced into a top-class double save when he parried Ronaldo’s wicked free-kick to Blaise Matuide, before blocking the follow-up shot. Dybala then curled in a left-footer that beat De Gea, but the ball went a foot wide of the post.
United’s sorties were sporadic but Rashford always looked a threat, and after 32 minutes he dropped his shoulder, cut in from the right, beat two defenders but was eventually crowded out. It lifted the volume, but Juventus maintained the ascendancy with some ease and went in at the break in control, having had 70% of possession.
Juan Mata, who had failed to track Dybala’s run for the opener, almost redeemed himself with a perfect chip over the top which Martial raced onto early in the second period, but the ball would not bounce for him and Leonardo Bonucci’s brilliant tackle prevented a shot at goal.
Ronaldo, who has scored 69 more goals in the Champions League than the Manchester United squad combined, almost got on the scoresheet soon after following a flowing move when Cuadrado put him in, but De Gea again denied him, sticking out a giant paw to superbly tip the ball over.
Romelu Lukaku again had a quiet, lonely night up front with very little quality service and United, who had plenty of opportunities from dead-ball situations, failed to take any of them, with their delivery largely poor throughout.
If there were any bright spots, they came from Lindelof. The Swede had to make several important blocks to keep United in the game and he looked a commanding figure that had been sorely lacking in the heart of defence in recent times.
While much had been made of Ronaldo playing against his former club, Pogba was also marking his return against Juventus and he almost gave United a leveller with 15 minutes remaining. Latching on to Bentancur’s sloppy pass, he peeled away from Mirlen Pjanic and angled a terrific curling shot, but the ball bounced back off the foot of the post and almost embarrassed Szczesny with the rebound hitting him on the head and staying out.
Juventus may have failed to have much to show for their first-half dominance as United enjoyed far more second-half possession, yet they produced an object lesson in how to protect the lead, restricting United to very few clear-cut chances. Indeed, Szczesny had one of his quieter nights.
While this was an obvious setback to the Red Devils’ European campaign, Mourinho’s side did receive a boost before kick-off, however, with fellow Group H opponents Young Boys holding Valencia to a 1-1 draw, leaving United second in the group on four points.
Yet on this display, Mourinho’s men are very much second best to Juventus and will do well to get anything in the return leg.