Michael Carrick made the instant, desired impact with the bold decisions that booked Manchester United’s place in the Champions League knockout stages but, yet again in Europe, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who was his side’s salvation.
The Portuguese legend struck the crucial opening goal on 78 minutes, while Jadon Sancho’s 89th-minute second was not only the punctuation point on a highly satisfactory evening, but also his first goal for United — as good a symbol as any of a new regime about to sweep in at Old Trafford and the end of the old.
It may prove a short-term caretaker role for Carrick, with reports claiming that United have already approached former Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde about becoming interim boss for the remainder of the season, before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent successor is named.
The smart money remains on Mauricio Pochettino, or possibly Brendan Rodgers, being appointed to that post, but whatever the future holds for Carrick, the former United midfielder will always have this.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Carrick after his managerial debut.
“I enjoyed the whole thing.
“The support has been there, but it has not been an easy couple of days for everyone at the club.
“I can enjoy it so much, but still that result feels like it’s for Ole. You can’t get away from that. But we had a job to do, without dwelling on it.
“While I was there, things needed to be taken care of, and I was happy to do it. Thankfully it all went according to plan.”
Regardless of the changing of the managerial guard and a solid debut from Carrick last night, it is the 36-year-old Ronaldo who promises to carry his club’s hopes squarely on his back, for the remainder of this season, at least.
It took Ronaldo’s tally to six goals in five Champions League games for United this season, and means that, of United’s 10 group points, the Portuguese star’s goals have effectively counted for seven of those.
In terms of the bigger picture, and the ongoing “greatest of all time” debate, it was also his 140th career goal in the Champions League and an even more astonishing 799 goals for club and country.
But Carrick’s efforts should not be underestimated, starting with his bold decision to drop Bruno Fernandes to the bench and hand just a third start of the season to the little-used Donny van de Beek.
For the first 20 minutes, United looked as lost as they had done in the late, dark days of Solskjaer’s reign, clearly uncertain of defensive assignments, structure, and tactics.
But, after that, a United defence that had kept just two clean sheets all season looked increasingly poised, Sancho looked confident and threatening at the other end of the field and, after 66 minutes, Carrick played his masterstroke, bringing on Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to add fresh legs and more directness to the attack.
Indeed, Fernandes set up Sancho for the best chance of the match by that point after 71 minutes, playing a one-two with the England winger, who was only denied by the outstretched boot of keeper Geronimo Rulli.
But six minutes later, United were in front after Fred — another player who clearly struggled for large parts of Solskjaer’s recent reign — pounced on a poor clearance from Rulli and dispossessed Etienne Capoue.
He flicked the ball forward to Ronaldo, who was all too aware of the keeper’s position as he lobbed it over his head and into the back of the Villarreal net.
It was a stunning development, given the chaos, carnage, and uncertainly that has shrouded United since the disaster of Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.
And, with a win guaranteeing United advance, better was to come in the 89th minute with anoth