Cristiano Ronaldo scored his second hat-trick in three Premier League games to boost Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League at the expense of relegation-threatened Norwich at Old Trafford.
Knowing victory would take them within three points of the top four, Ronaldo appeared to have put United in control when he scored twice in the opening 32 minutes.
However, appalling defending from the hosts either side of the interval allowed Norwich to equalise through Kieran Dowell and Teemu Pukki and for a while Dean Smith’s side looked the more likely winners.
But after Ralf Rangnick had abandoned his bold tactic of playing without a recognised ball-winner in midfield and replaced Paul Pogba with Juan Mata, Ronaldo drove a free-kick home off the inside of a post 14 minutes from time to secure victory.
The 37-year-old is now on 15 Premier League goals for the season, trailing only Mohamed Salah and Son Hueng-min in the standings. He has also moved on to 99 career Premier League goals.
United can move level on points with fourth-placed Spurs if they win at Liverpool on Tuesday.
For Norwich the outcome was a major blow to their faint hopes of avoiding the drop. The Canaries are now seven points behind fourth-bottom Everton, having played two games more and with only six matches to do something about it.
Ronaldo the hero again
It is a question without an answer, but it keeps being posed nevertheless: is Ronaldo the cause of United’s problems or the solution?
On this occasion, he was certainly the latter.
Not that he had to do much for his first goal. Ben Gibson was dispossessed in his own penalty area as Norwich tried to move the ball forward from a goal-kick, allowing Anthony Elanga to find Ronaldo who applied the first-time finish.
Ronaldo’s second was one of the towering headers he has produced so often down the years, climbing highest to reach Alex Telles’ corner and power past Tim Krul.
The winner was typical of the man. With the pressure on and all eyes trained on him, Ronaldo puffed his chest out after Elanga had been fouled on the edge of the area, ran up and belted his shot into the net off the inside of a post.
It was a quite sensational effort and brought a crowd simmering with discontent to their feet.
Norwich expose poor defending
The celebrations at the final whistle must have felt like a dagger to the heart for Norwich boss Smith.
They also masked some pretty shocking defending from the hosts, the type of stuff seen all too often down the years and which has left many of the club’s fans in such a state of fury – some even missed the start of the game as part of a pre-match protest.
Norwich’s opener was a case in point.
Pukki was on his own when he took possession on the right-hand side of the area, then picked out Dowell, who was also totally unmarked as he put the ball past David de Gea from six yards.
Pukki was then similarly alone seven minutes after the re-start as he pulled the visitors level.
Milton Rashica had a shot turned round the post at full stretch by De Gea and Sam Byram headed over at the far post. At that point, Smith must have thought a famous win was on the cards.
Ronaldo had other ideas. Norwich’s fight for survival continues. But the odds against them being successful are growing.
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