Before the 60th hat-trick of Cristiano Ronaldo’s extraordinary career, it seemed as though any remaining intrigue around Manchester United’s season would come solely off-the-pitch. After a week of speculation around the imminent appointment of Erik ten Hag and on a day of protests against the Glazer ownership, there appeared to be very little to actually play for. Yet a hard-earned 3-2 win against Norwich and favourable results elsewhere means that, suddenly, there is a chance this season can still mean something.
The top-four picture is a little rosier than it was this time last week after the defeat at Goodison Park. United are now up to fifth, only three points behind fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur after playing the same number of games. Arsenal still have a game in hand on both but now trail United on goal difference and look at risk of spiralling out of control. Could Ten Hag’s first season at Old Trafford be spent in the Champions League after all?
If so, United cannot rely on Ronaldo to dig them out of hole as they did here and have done so plenty of times before. Ralf Rangnick’s side will have to play a great deal better than they did against a Norwich outfit that to all intents and purposes has already been relegated. They cannot afford to surrender a 2-0 lead as they did before Ronaldo’s spectacular 76th-minute free-kick, which bounced in off the upright to salvage a sloppy performance.
And even if United use this victory as a springboard into the top four or as merely a platform for improvement over the final weeks of the campaign, that is unlikely to lift the air of toxicity that was present inside Old Trafford at times. Paul Pogba was booed off the pitch twice – first when he left as a substitute, then as he walked off at full time – while at 2-2, his team-mates were accused of not being fit to wear the shirt. That is to say nothing of the pre-match protests, either.
What began as a few hundred at The Tollgate pub in Stretford grew into several thousand once they arrived at Old Trafford around three quarters of an hour before kick-off. Many congregated in the Munich Tunnel, which was filled with flags, chants and pyrotechnics. Some of those chants were in better taste than others but it was nothing that has not already been heard over the past 17 years and this was a more significantly more peaceful protest than last year’s against Liverpool.
Whether it will have much of a material effect is another question. The demonstrations in the wake of the Super League’s collapse at least forced the Glazer family to the table, even if proposals like the fans’ share scheme have yet to properly get off the ground. These protests lacked the same impact. Inside Old Trafford at kick-off, you’d struggle to tell there was a boycott of any sort and the arrival of the fans in the 17th minute went largely unheralded.
Those voluntarily turning up late missed a lively start and United taking the lead after only seven minutes. Ronaldo’s 20th goal of the season was a simple finish, stroked into an unguarded net, and it owed everything to the industry of Anthony Elanga. The teenager’s rise to becoming a fully-fledged first team player is likely to be Rangnick’s greatest legacy as interim manager, and the diligent attitude Elanga has shown out of possession created the goal.
With Ben Gibson dithering on the ball inside his own penalty box, Elanga pounced, chasing down the Norwich centre-half and stealing the ball off his toes. A simple cut-back allowed Ronaldo to strike past an exposed Tim Krul. It was a goal straight out of Rangnick’s gegenpressing playbook and, after his customary ‘siu’ celebration, Ronaldo made sure to pay credit to his young team-mate for making it all happen.
When Ronaldo added a second on the half hour mark, United appeared to be heading for a routine win. Alex Telles’ corner hung up nicely for a near-post run and Ronaldo obliged, dashing to beat Gibson to the ball and head past Krul. The 37-year-old has now scored more than 20 club goals in each of his last 16 seasons. Whatever other issues his inclusion might bring, it is a phenomenal record.
That really should have been all three points guaranteed against a side that has only picked up nine on the road all season. But perhaps that kind of complacency was the issue. The first half was coming to a low-key close when Pukki and Dimitris Giannoulis combined down the left to get in behind Diogo Dalot too easily. Pukki’s cross to the far post found an unmarked Dowell for a free header to reduce the arrears.
Norwich had already threatened in glimpses, with Pukki going clean through for the game’s first chance and being denied in a one-on-one with De Gea. He should have scored, but the Finn would not make the same mistake at the start of the second half. Norwich went from front to back with ease, cutting through a non-existent United press, and Dowell’s sublime through ball sent Pukki in on goal once more, his finish deflecting in off the inside of the near post.
From 2-0 up to 2-2, despite results elsewhere going United’s way, the mood inside Old Trafford began to turn. A chant of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ went up. Pogba’s substitution was first cheered, Pogba himself was then booed as he made his way to the bench, and some in the Stretford End joined in unison to tell him where to go. The mood was only lifted a couple of minutes later, when Ronaldo lined up the free-kick. Whatever problems he causes, he has a knack of solving a few as well. Whether that will be enough to save United’s season remains to be seen.