Making a record 178th Champions League appearance – moving him ahead of former Real Madrid teammate Iker Casillas on the all-time list – Ronaldo pounced in the 95th minute to fire home a strike from a tight angle via the hand of despairing Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
The goal was Ronaldo’s second in the Champions League since rejoining United and a 136th overall in the competition he reigns over as top scorer.
On netting the late, late winner in front of a jubilant Old Trafford, the musclebound 36-year-old whipped off his shirt before being engulfed by his teammates.
Ronaldo whipped off his shirt amid the celebrations. © Reuters
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was no less ecstatic on the touchline after watching his team labor for much of the match against wily opposition managed by Unai Emery, who had beaten the English giants on penalties in last season’s Europa League final.
After the hosts were indebted to goalkeeper David de Gea in the first half, it was Villarreal who took the lead in the 53rd minute when Arnaut Danjuma drove past Diogo Dalot down the left flank, turning the ball across the face of the goal for Paco Alcacer to poke home.
The goal was no less than Villarreal deserved and came from a predictable source after Danjuma had run Dalot ragged for much of the night.
United finally roused themselves, equalizing seven minutes later thanks to a sweetly hit volley from Alex Telles after he was cleverly teed up by a free-kick from Bruno Fernandes on the opposite side of the box.
United pressed and were rewarded for their efforts when Ronaldo – a largely peripheral figure until that point – sent a header towards substitute Jesse Lingard in the Villarreal box.
Lingard was unable to collect the ball but his touch sent it back towards Ronaldo, who drove it low and into the net via the hand of Villarreal’s Rulli.
The goal sent supporters in the stands wild – including watching sprint king Usain Bolt and veteran United boss Sir Alex Ferguson – while fans online saluted Ronaldo for being the match-winner on yet another Champions League night.
“Cristiano Ronaldo’s career is scripted, he’s inevitable,” gushed one fan, while transfer guru Fabrizio Romano hailed CR7’s late, late show, writing: “If you’ve [got] Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s never over.”
The defeat gave United a first win in this season’s competition, after their shock opening Group F defeat against Young Boys in Switzerland.
Ronaldo has scored five times for United in five games since rejoining the club from Juventus in a late summer transfer move.
Next up for the evergreen Portuguese five-time Champions League winner and his team is a Premier League meeting with Everton on Saturday.
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