The step-overs returned, there was a backheel, a strop and a goal of the month contender. All Cristiano Ronaldo was lacking was his signature celebration, instead opting for a knee-slide.
Usually, a goalscorer’s drought is ended through good fortune, not Ronaldo. The 15th goal of his second coming at Manchester United was arguably his best and certainly the most important.
Ronaldo had not gone seven games without scoring since United were champions of England, champions of Europe and champions of the world midway through 2008-09. This time, his impotent run ended at six games and Ronaldo may still back himself to match that season’s haul of 26 goals.
For now, United occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot and retaining Ronaldo for a second season depends on their presence in that competition. Thursday nights for Ronaldo have been nights off for as long as he has known in his professional career.
Amid all the media advisers and communications employees, Ronaldo is still the expert in crisis management at United. Mutiny was simmering during a forlorn first-half as Brighton excelled and squandered two presentable openings to lead. The absentee landlords, the Glazers, were targeted and a handful of the players admonished.
Ronaldo was one of the few respectable performers in red. The Manchester rainfall always creates an unflattering appearance and Ronaldo, a man for all seasons, seemed freer and fresher with the skies clear on a chilly evening.
Ronaldo rediscovered the step-over in the opening seconds and deftly backheeled to Sancho but he shot straight at Robert Sanchez. Ronaldo expressed his dismay at not receiving the ball back and then kicked the post after Dunk inadvertently lofted the ball over his own crossbar.
United still seemed intent on prolonging the pattern of 1-1 draws. Ronaldo wasted two easy headers and Bruno Fernandes hit too closely at Sanchez with the goal at his mercy. Fernandes eventually settled the contest with the final kick on a breakaway. Rangnick almost dropped to his knees in relief.
The introduction of the whippersnapper Tariq Lamptey sufficiently startled Luke Shaw to commit a cynical foul and Brighton’s attack was also reenergised by Welbeck’s emergence. Jakub Moder smacked the bar with an audacious attempt in the 77th minute and Ralf Rangnick made a defensive switch by replacing Jadon Sancho for Alex Telles.
Brighton had only lost once away from home in the league all season and must curse the final score. There were three minutes between Ronaldo’s 51st minute strike and Dunk’s expulsion, enforced by the VAR, for denying Anthony Elanga an obvious goalscoring opportunity, and they still worried United.
Danny Welbeck, applauded by the United supporters, might have reduced them to jeers when he ghosted between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof in the 90th minute had he kept his header below the bar.
When Punxsutawney Phil emerged from hibernation on February 2, United supporters might have wondered whether he predicted six more weeks of draws. The pattern was broken in the first-half yet the mood worse. There were boos at half-time.
“Absolutely terrible,” muttered one United supporter sat in front of the press box. The referee at least had the decency not to add on any time. “Attack, attack, attack” was a recurring battle cry.
As early as the 17th minute, the Stretford End berated David de Gea or his teammates (or both) for not restarting quickly enough. A back pass from Victor Lindelof and loose passes by Harry Maguire and Fred did not improve the mood and the impatience transmitted to the opposite end as Luke Shaw dithered over a throw-in. There were only 32 munutes on the clock. The next minute there was a rendition of ‘We want Glazers out’.
The United fans were more appreciative of De Gea when he clawed away Moder’s free header. De Gea and Ronaldo have been United’s main matchwinners this term and that trend has continued across managers permanent, caretaker and interim.
A rearranged midweek kick-off at 8.15pm between the team with the most draws in the Premier League and February’s draw specialists was not even on British television on the night Paris Saint-Germain versus Real Madrid contributed to the early apathy, although some of the Old Trafford denizens were defiant.
For the tens of thousands who clicked through the turnstiles, they would have rather not been anywhere else. There were few sparse sections for a match that was originally scheduled to be staged the Saturday before Christmas until Covid swept through the United squad. It is to the immense credit and commitment of both sets of supporters they were not discouraged by the inconvenient kick-off time. Brighton’s allocation was predictably reduced.
Fred’s recall at the expense of Paul Pogba was logical to bring energy to a midfield that was unchanged across the trio of 1-1 stalemates. Fred and Pogba would have been too loose a midfield and midway through the first-half Rangnick signalled a switch to 4-2-3-1 to counter Brighton’s fleet-footed aesthetes. Fred was eventually removed in the 73rd minute to sardonic cheers by a section of supporters.
Pogba delighted a child by handing him his shirt at full-time and he was warming up long before the interval, doubling as a touchline coach in front of the Stretford End, addressing United’s shape and applauding Scott McTominay. McTominay robbed the hitherto accomplished Yves Bissouma for Ronaldo to latch onto the ball and larrup it past Sanchez.
Even in the final minutes, Ronaldo was still bringing out the step-overs.