Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the all-time leading goalscorer in the European Cup, was once again one of the headline-grabbers this week in the Champions League, while Rafael Leão continues to make his mark in the competition with his first-ever UCL goal for AC Milan.
Ronaldo, who was making a record 178th appearance in the tournament, struck in the 95th minute to give United a vital 2-1 victory over Villarreal at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The previous evening saw youngster Leão, hoping for a call-up when Portugal’s squad is announced today, put in another promising display, marked by a goal and a wonderful overhead kick attempt as Milan controversially lost to Atletico Madrid.
United’s late victory over Villarreal was crucial for the Red Devils, who lost their opening Group F match in Switzerland against Young Boys and looked in danger of another defeat at the hands of the Spaniards at Old Trafford. Villarreal were the more dangerous side in a goalless first half and took the lead through Paco Alcacer on 53 minutes.
The hosts had Diogo Dalot, stepping in for the suspended Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back, joining Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo in their line-up, with all three players playing the full ninety minutes. United’s equaliser was made in the Portuguese league, as Fernandes picked out former Porto left-back Alex Telles from a free-kick and the Brazilian connected with a sensational volley into the bottom corner on the hour.
The match looked set to end in an unsatisfactory draw for United, but once again Ronaldo proved decisive at the vital moment. The Portugal captain had a quiet evening as United struggled to create notable opportunities, but with just seconds left on the clock substitute Jesse Lingard managed to prod the ball to Ronaldo who beat Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli from a tight angle.
“Another beautiful chapter,” said Ronaldo on scoring to celebrate becoming the competition’s all-time leading appearance-maker. “I’m so happy to score the winning goal. And the way I did with the most appearances in history, to score a goal – great night. But I have to mention the attitude of the team, which is the most important thing here. We gave a good answer after conceding the goal, especially the fans who pushed us a lot. The team and the fans did an unbelievable job.”
Milan denied by late penalty
Rafael Leão scored his first-ever Champions League goal on Tuesday night and for much of the evening it looked to be a potential winner as AC Milan hosted Atletico Madrid in Group B. Leão’s 20th-minute goal was the difference between the sides until six minutes from time when Antoine Griezmann levelled for Atletico, after which the Spanish side snatched all three points through a penalty deep into stoppage time.
The San Siro erupted when Leão put Milan ahead with a clinical right-foot finish into the bottom corner to cap an excellent start by the hosts. However, the Rossoneri’s mood was soon tempered when midfielder Franck Kessie was shown a second yellow card for a seemingly innocuous challenge with less than half an hour on the clock.
Despite the disadvantage, Leão continued to cause problems in the Atletico defence and almost doubled Milan’s advantage in sensational fashion. The former Sporting striker latched into a long pass on 37 minutes and fashioned a superb overhead kick which smashed the crossbar, albeit the linesman’s flag would have denied the 22-year-old anyway.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone threw on João Félix before half time to enhance his side’s pressure, but Milan held their 1-0 lead in the face of their numerical disadvantage until the 84th minute when another substitute, Antoine Griezmann, swept home his first goal since returning to the club from Barcelona in the summer.
The match ended in controversy after another huge decision by referee Cuneyt Cakir, who awarded Atletico a penalty for handball by Pierre Kalulu. Luis Suarez stepped up to calmly slot the winner for Los Rojiblancos, leaving Milan to count the cost of the early red card and misfortune with marginal decisions.
“We are disappointed because we wanted to win this match and put pressure on the others,” Leão told the media after the match. “It would have been better to score with a win, we created many chances before Kessie's red. But we have to grow from these mistakes and work with our heads held high.
"We know very well that the Champions League is different from the league championship, but we have to grow from these mistakes and do the best we can in the next match.
“My start to the season? I'm happy for myself, but I think the most important thing today was to win.”
By Sean Gillen