It was deemed a pivotal match in the title race. Liverpool would have been able to go top of the Premier League table – or at least within a point of it – with a win in their game in hand if Manchester City slipped up in the Manchester derby.

But upon its conclusion at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it was difficult to imagine Liverpool players doing anything but lifting their jaws off the floor after City blew Manchester United away in stunning fashion, beating Ralf Rangnick's side 4-1.

Not that it always looked likely to be so one-sided. A Cristiano Ronaldo-less United certainly made things interesting at the start, and the absence of the Portuguese forward – due to a hip injury – gave them an enigmatic aura, to some degree.

It emerged on Saturday night that Ronaldo was a doubt when reports began to suggest the Portugal captain had not been present with the rest of the squad at their team hotel.

City would surely have been preparing to face Ronaldo all week, and so United's set-up will have come as something of a shock – even more so when in the early exchanges it looked like the visitors were attempting to go punch-for-punch with the champions, something few teams survive.

In fact, early on there were signs of role reversal. United had spells of possession, City were playing for counters. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, counter-attacking became something of a staple for the Red Devils in these fixtures.

But in the absence of Ronaldo, it was as if United were finally playing with a full complement of players, such has been his lack of influence outside the penalty area – you could potentially include inside the area as well given his recent wastefulness.

With Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba supporting wide forwards Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga, United looked fluid, intricate and generally dangerous in attack, almost mimicking City's striker-less style for 2021-22, the hosts' fifth-minute opener from Kevin De Bruyne not appearing to upset the away side's flow a great deal.

Jadon Sancho's excellent equaliser showed precisely what United were capable of, as they cut through City and the England international exhibited great composure by skipping around Rodri and curling into the bottom-right corner.

Though by that point, in the 22nd minute, City had already started to get to grips with United's slightly surprising set-up, as Rangnick's men started to show cracks.

In the first 15 minutes, the share of possession was almost 50/50 – over the course of a derby during Pep Guardiola's time in Manchester, United haven't had more than 40 per cent at the Etihad Stadium. But over the following third of the first half, City's share increased to 72.5 per cent, and it was unsurprising to see them regain the lead through De Bruyne just six minutes after Sancho's leveller.

If United were trying to mimic City, the latter were proving themselves to be the real deal.

Pep Guardiola seemingly targeted Aaron Wan-Bissaka – or United's right flank in general – as the weak link, with the right-back struggling to cope as Joao Cancelo, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva – even Phil Foden too at times – ganged up on him. City's first two goals originated from that area of the pitch and, in truth, even more could have.

United reached the break just one goal behind, and given their promising start and the open nature of the first period, there was reason to believe a way back wasn't out of the question.

But City were on a different planet after half-time.

Their control of the ball found another level, as did their cohesion when pressing, with United having immense difficulty passing through the City midfield.

Pogba faded into anonymity, Fernandes and Sancho too, while Grealish galloped with joy and De Bruyne ran the show, out-crafting and out-muscling his counterparts at almost every opportunity.

Adding to his brace, the Belgian also played the inch-perfect corner delivery that led to Riyad Mahrez's gorgeous half-volleyed third, which most would have accepted was game over for United. Though fans would have hoped the players weren't of the same opinion.

Yet the response to that 68th-minute goal was non-existent. City had 87 per cent of the ball between the 76th minute and full-time as United just seemed to throw in the towel – the concession of a late fourth to Mahrez was a just punishment for their reaction.

City's performance was a timely and fitting reminder that their superiority cannot be simply copied and pasted.

Rangnick said on Friday that City are an example because every decision in the club revolves around certain ideals and a joint-up philosophical approach to football – the second half on Sunday embodied that as they played United off the park playing the ferocious football they are known for.

Before this weekend, United had been reduced to the role of prospective party-poopers – it's a damning indictment of where they are now that even this was evidently way beyond their capacity.

Roy Keane has questioned why Cristiano Ronaldo was omitted from Manchester United's squad for Sunday's derby showdown with Manchester City.

Ronaldo leads the scoring charts for United this term with 15 goals across all competitions, but he played no part against Premier League leaders City at the Etihad Stadium.

Ralf Rangnick put the Portugal international's absence for the contest down to a hip flexor injury that kept him out of training on Friday.

But former United midfielder Keane suggested there may be other reasons behind the five-time Ballon d'Or winner being left out by Rangnick for such an important game.

"There seems to be more to the Ronaldo story when a manager comes out and talks about a hip flexor... I don't get it," Keane told Sky Sports ahead of the match. 

"We talk about Ronaldo being a machine and very rarely getting injured but every now and again he comes out with that... a hip flexor? It doesn't add up to me.

"It's a surprise to hear Ronaldo has a hip injury but United have pace, quality. They still have important players and they still have to come out and play with pride."

Ronaldo had played in 30 of United's 37 games this term prior to the City game, a tally bettered only by Jadon Sancho (31), David de Gea (35) and Bruno Fernandes (36).

United had won 11 of the 20 Premier League games Ronaldo had featured in before Sunday, compared to two wins from the seven games he has not played a part in.

Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane also missed the City match after testing positive for coronavirus, while Edinson Cavani failed to recover from injury in time.

Manchester United stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Raphael Varane were all ruled out of Sunday's derby clash with Manchester City.

Ronaldo, who is United's top scorer with 15 goals in 30 appearances across all competitions, was absent for the trip to the Etihad Stadium, while Cavani was also not fit enough to make the squad.

While the Portugal star leads the scoring charts for the Red Devils, he has managed just one goal in 2022 – a second-half strike against Brighton and Hove Albion on February 15.

Earlier reports suggested injuries were behind the absences of Cavani and Ronaldo, and Ralf Rangnick confirmed the latter hurt his hip in training on Friday.

While that left Marcus Rashford as Rangnick's only recognised striker, the England international was named on the bench with Bruno Fernandes leading the line and flanked by Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga.

Rangnick also was again without Luke Shaw, with Alex Telles operating at left-back, while Scott McTominay replaced Nemanja Matic, and Harry Maguire came in for Varane from their last outing against Watford.

Shaw and Varane were missing due to testing positive for COVID-19.

Manchester United have plenty of issues to solve ahead of next season, no matter where they end up in 2021-22.

It seems certain that Ralf Rangnick will not be in charge, with Mauricio Pochettino among the favourites to take over, though the former RB Leipzig boss is set to move into a consultancy role at Old Trafford, and certainly has an eye for picking a player.

United have requirements in central midfield, regardless of whether Paul Pogba stays or goes, but based on current evidence, they also need a striker.

Their problems up top have come back to bite them in recent games. In fact, against Watford last time out, United had 22 shots, finishing with an expected goals (xG) of 2.7, yet drew 0-0 at Old Trafford. Putting away chances has been a major area of concern.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the club at the end of the August transfer window, and while he has contributed 15 goals in all competitions, it could easily be argued that United's all-round play has taken a hit since the 37-year-old's homecoming.

Edinson Cavani has featured only sporadically this season and, like Ronaldo, is approaching the twilight of a glistening career. Both players may well not be at United heading into 2022-23.

Anthony Martial is out on loan at Sevilla, with his United future looking rather bleak. Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, seems to lack the clinical nature to lead a title-challenging line.

The last time United went out and signed a striker at their peak was the season in which they last won the Premier League – Robin van Persie proving the difference in Alex Ferguson's last campaign in charge.

On Sunday, United face rivals Manchester City. A team that has perfected playing without a recognised number nine.

That is testament to Pep Guardiola's genius, but it has proved that it can be done. So, looking further down the line, who is the forward that United need?

Here, Stats Perform assesses some standout options.

Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Kane has long been linked with a move to Manchester, to both sides of the red-blue divide. It appeared City would bring the England captain north last year, yet Tottenham refused to budge, and it would seem that particular ship has sailed – Kane turns 29 this year and, with Erling Haaland's reported €75million (£62.1m) release clause, City are reportedly prioritising the Borussia Dortmund star. 

That could that leave the door open for Kane to rock up at Old Trafford instead, especially if the option of linking up with Pochettino is on the table.

It has been a tough season for Kane by his lofty standards, though his brilliant performances against City and Leeds United in recent weeks showed the player that was at the top of his game last season is still there.

Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad)

Taking Kylian Mbappe and Haaland out of the equation, United might still look at the younger end of the spectrum. In that regard, Real Sociedad's Isak may fit the bill.

Isak scored 17 LaLiga goals last season and, while he has not reached quite the same heights in 2021-22, at 22 he is definitely one for the future. His tally of eight goals across all competitions is disappointing, though when looking at expected goals on target (xGOT) – a tool that can quantify the quality of a player's finishing – Isak is at 12.2 for the season, suggesting that the placement of his shots should have resulted in more goals.

Patrik Schick (Bayer Leverkusen)

While not among the elite, if United are looking for a goalscorer then they could do worse than Schick, who has carried over his fine form from Euro 2020 into this season, scoring 20 goals in 24 matches for Bayer Leverkusen, striking on average every 84 minutes, which is the third-best minutes per goal ratio of strikers in Europe's top five leagues to have already netted at least 20 goals in all competitions, after Haaland and Robert Lewandowski (more on him later).

 

Schick has already had something of a nomadic career but at 26 is about to enter his prime years. His shot conversion rate of 28.17 is superb, ranking fourth out of players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1 to have scored at least 10 times.

The Czech's xGOT of 16.1, minus his xG of 14.4, gives him a shooting goals added (sga) figure of +1.7, meaning he is executing better quality shots than the quality of the chances he has attempted shots from. However, in contrast to Isak, he may also have benefited from goalkeepers failing to keep out attempts they would be expected to.

Lautaro Martinez (Inter)

One player who is among Europe's elite forwards is Inter's Martinez. The Argentine struck up a fearsome partnership with Romelu Lukaku in 2019-20 and 2020-21, and he has scored 12 goals already this season.

Martinez's aggression and pace could make him an ideal frontman for the Premier League, though his finishing can be erratic (he has had 102 attempts this season but has a conversion rate of just 11.76 per cent), while he has also underperformed his xG (17.1). The Argentine did only sign a new Inter contract last year, so he would be hard to prise away.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern)

Before disregarding the option of Lewandowski as fantasy, take into account that he has not yet signed a new deal with Bayern Munich. The 33-year-old's contract expires in 2023.

Lewandowski is undoubtedly the best out-and-out striker in world football right now and, if Ronaldo and Cavani were to leave, United might prefer to go with experience. 

 

Not that experience is all Lewandowski would offer. He will go down as one of the best to grace the game and has 39 goals in 33 appearances this season, slightly overperforming his xG (37.6) in the process. He nets on average every 73 minutes and, like Van Persie a decade ago, would surely transform United into title contenders. That being said, the same was also said about Ronaldo.

Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid) 

Something of a wildcard option, Joao Felix is not the typical striker, but if United were to go down a Guardiola-inspired false nine route, then the former Benfica boy wonder might be the perfect fit.

It would be harsh to say Joao Felix has been a failure at Atletico Madrid, but it is fair to suggest he has not been a rip-roaring success under Diego Simeone either.

Yet the 22-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance. Indeed, he outshone compatriot Ronaldo in United's recent Champions League draw with Atleti and with the tactical nous he is sure to have got from Simeone, it would be intriguing to see him at Old Trafford.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been "a joy to watch" in recent years, according to Pep Guardiola and the Spaniard believes football will never see the like of the Manchester United star's talents again.

The duo will face off once more in the Manchester derby on Sunday, having built a rivalry during their days in La Liga as Real Madrid forward and Barcelona coach respectively.

Manchester City boss Guardiola tried to coax Ronaldo to join his side from Juventus in the close season, before United swept in to seal a homecoming for the Portugal superstar.

But even after missing out on his services, Guardiola has nothing but praise for the evergreen attacker's skills, citing him and Lionel Messi as generational powerhouses.

"One of the greatest in the last 15 years alongside Messi," Guardiola told a pre-match press conference on Friday when asked on Ronaldo. "We aren't going to see it again.

"When you achieve these things, you're under scrutiny every day. He was too good and as a finisher, exceptional - a top player. It has [been] a joy to watch in these years.

"We have to exploit our game and strength to avoid him close to the ball. We have to control him. One of the greatest - a goalscoring machine.

"He is so strong mentally. He handles this pressure without a problem, [and] lives with expectation through his career in a positive way."

City head into their clash with United eying a first Premier League double over their local rivals since the 2018-19 campaign, in what will be the pair's maiden meeting with Ralf Rangnick in the opposite dugout.

The German, who is set to be in command of United through to the end of the season, has them on the longest current unbeaten streak in the top flight (eight games).

Their hosts, meanwhile, will be out to avoid rare successive losses at the Etihad Stadium, following defeat to Tottenham in a five-goal thriller on their previous home outing.

Manchester United have to be "dreaming" of landing players like Erling Haaland says Dimitar Berbatov, who also defended Cristiano Ronaldo's recent performances for the Red Devils.

Interim boss Ralf Rangnick was recently filmed on a video clip posted to social media saying "Who? What are you dreaming at night?!" in response to a fan asking if United were going to sign Borussia Dortmund star Haaland.

The Norway striker certainly has no shortage of suitors with the likes of Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona all heavily linked with the superstar forward.

With United way off the pace in the Premier League and firmly remaining outsiders in the hunt for the Champions League, Rangnick was perhaps not too far wide of the mark when suggesting Haaland is out of reach for now.

But former United striker Berbatov believes Haaland is the kind of player United have to once again think about signing to restore their standing among the elite clubs in Europe.

"I saw the video going around social media of Ralf Rangnick laughing off Erling Haaland signing for United," Berbatov told Betfair, in quotes reported by several British newspapers.

"He told a fan that they 'must be dreaming' about signing him, maybe that's a sign that they can't afford him or it's not possible for him to move to the club at this moment in time when they aren't producing good enough football to get his interest, maybe that's what he meant.

"For me they need to go back to those high standards of performance that they used to set, so that they can attract big players.

"Everybody wants him in summer and maybe Rangnick was being realistic. It's not a great look, though, and in this day and age you have to be careful because you can end up in a moment where you need to explain yourself.

"You must be mad to not want a player like Haaland in your team, so maybe Ralf Rangnick should start dreaming."

One superstar whose future at United remains a little unclear is veteran forward Ronaldo, who made a sensational return to Old Trafford in August.

Ronaldo is United's top scorer this season but he has netted only once in 2022, while his comeback has coincided with a campaign that saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sacked and persistent rumours of dressing room unrest among the squad.

Berbatov, though, suggested the 37-year-old is allowed to have bad games and said the onus is on his team-mates to produce the goods when he is not playing at his best.

"When teams have a bad result the star players always end up with the blame, and at the minute with Manchester United, that's Cristiano Ronaldo," said Berbatov, who played alongside Ronaldo during his four years at Old Trafford.

"At the moment he's got just one goal in 10 games and that seems problematic for everybody, but not for me.

"There are eleven players on the pitch and the blame should be shared. Ronaldo is an icon in the world of football and people need to remember that he's 37.

"So, from time to time he is allowed to have a couple of bad games. But I don't think that is the problem here.

"People need to be realistic with him and they need to know that it's totally different when you're 37 to being 27.

"He is going to have moments when he needs his team-mates to produce more for him, that's normal in football. Ronaldo is a total professional and he will speak to the manager and he will want to produce more.

"Everybody in the United team needs to produce more, the standards should be a lot higher than they are.

"Ronaldo is also a realistic guy, he will know that his performances aren't where he wants them to be, even though he's older and his game is totally different, he sets very high standards. I don't think that needs explaining to him."

Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri hailed the quality that Dusan Vlahovic has brought to the Bianconeri squad after he netted two superb goals in a 3-2 win at Empoli.

Vlahovic netted twice after Moise Kean had opened the scoring for the Old Lady in a win which saw them consolidate fourth place in Serie A, although they had to survive a late onslaught from their lively hosts.

The Serbian striker now has 20 Serie A goals this season, while the victory has given Juventus a six-point cushion over fifth-placed Atalanta, ahead of Gian Piero Gasperini's team's clash with Sampdoria on Monday.

Vlahovic's neat finishes proved the difference in a hard-fought encounter in which Empoli managed 11 attempts to the visitors' 12.

Allegri was keen to praise the in-form striker for the qualities he displayed.

"Vlahovic is an important player, he has character as well as quality," Allegri said. "You could tell straight away this lad has character, wants to win and is eager to learn. 

"He has the kind of characteristics we didn't have in the squad.

"He moved a lot more in this game, didn't just stay central, and that was a big advantage for him and for us."

 

Allegri was also asked how his number seven compared to the man who wore that shirt during his last spell in charge in Turin, two-time Serie A player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I don't think you can compare them," he said. "The previous seven won the Ballon d'Or five times, whereas Vlahovic is at the beginning of his career. 

"A good game isn't enough, [for comparisons with Ronaldo] you need immense mental strength, and he is at the start of his journey."

Vlahovic has now scored two or more goals on nine occasions in Serie A since the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign, equalling Ronaldo's tally of multiple-goal hauls in Italy during the same period.

Allegri also professed himself pleased with the forward options at his disposal, as both Kean and Alvaro Morata recorded goal involvements, but the Bianconeri boss maintained that Juventus are not contenders for the Serie A title.

He added: "Kean struggles with his back to goal and coming back to connect with the midfield, but he does well when wide and attacking the box. Alvaro Morata is the same, he gave a great pass to Vlahovic for the third goal.

"Football is very simple, you just have to put players in roles where they can work to their characteristics.

"We couldn't do that for four or five months, so we had to adapt, but we stayed in range of the top four and now we'll see what happens.

"I remain fully convinced it will take 84 to 85 points minimum to win the Scudetto. Our objective is to finish in the top four and we need to be consistent, because there's Atalanta, Fiorentina, Lazio are coming up too.

"The title will be a battle between those three up there [Milan, Inter, and Napoli]."

Juventus are now unbeaten in their last 13 Serie A games, their longest such run since a 14-match run under Maurizio Sarri between August and December 2019.

Cristiano Ronaldo acknowledged that he will not "be playing for many more years" but insisted he has the desire to win more.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has tasted success in England, Spain, Italy and on the international stage with Portugal.

The 37-year-old boasts the all-time scoring records in the Champions League and men's international football.

But the Manchester United forward wants to keep adding to that illustrious list of achievements as he heads into the twilight of his career.

"It's hard to say that I don’t want to win more," Ronaldo told DAZN in an interview published on Friday.

"If I'm at a club and I'm part of a national team that gives me the opportunity to win more, then why not?

"I know that I’m not going to be playing for many more years, hopefully about four or five more years, we'll see. But I want to win more."

Ronaldo recently endured a lean run of scoring form, failing to find the net in six appearances in all competitions during January and February – his longest run without club goal since a seven-game streak in December 2008 and January 2009.

But he ended that spell with a goal against Brighton and Hove Albion on February 15, taking his tally to 15 in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, and Ronaldo suggested he will carry on playing for as long as he enjoys to.

"I follow my own path, working on a daily basis, still trying to improve in every way and looking after myself both physically and mentally," he added.

"I'm quite old for football. In the past, great players used to play until they were older, but they didn't have as many games as we do.

"I've already reached that number [1,000 games], but like I mentioned, taking care of my body, continuing to work, and having the same enthusiasm as I used to, I can still give it all.

"Most importantly, I continue to enjoy what I do."

Ronaldo's impact has not just aided United in their fight for Champions League qualification, but his influence has also rubbed off on other players, such as Jadon Sancho.

"It is great to play next to someone who people call the GOAT [greatest of all time], so it is actually kind of crazy," Sancho told BBC Sport.

"When he first came into the dressing room I was kind of stunned. I couldn't believe that I was going to be playing alongside him.

"To have him around is fantastic, he is a great player and is a great guy. He always wants to win and for the younger players he is always helping us learn new things, telling us what to do and how to do things to make things better.

"Just being aware what is going on [he can help with] because he has been in the game for so long and he has that experience of how to beat players and to know where to be at the right time, like when a ball is being delivered and things like that.

"He is just a magician. I really appreciate him for that and he is just a great guy overall."

Ronaldo and Sancho will be hoping to partner up for more United success when Ralf Rangnick's side host Watford on Saturday.

United have never lost a home league game against Watford (W11 D2) – no side have they faced more at home in their league history without suffering defeat.

Cristiano Ronaldo expressed his pleasure at being back in Madrid after Manchester United secured a 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid in their Champions League round-of-16 first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Teenager Anthony Elanga came off the bench to equalise for United after a first-half Joao Felix header had put the hosts in front.

The second leg at Old Trafford will be played on March 15.

Ronaldo spent nine years at Real Madrid after his first stint with the Red Devils, winning four Champions League crowns and two LaLiga titles among a vast array of honours at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The Portugal international also boasts an impressive record against Atletico, having scored 25 goals in 36 matches against them, only managing more versus Sevilla during his entire career.

Four of Ronaldo's club hat-tricks have come against Atletico, two of which have been netted in the Champions League – no other player has recorded more against a single opponent in Europe's top club tournament.

 

However, he was unable to find the net on Wednesday. It was Elanga who had the honour of scoring United's 500th goal in the European Cup/ Champions League.

Ronaldo seemed satisfied with his night's work though, taking to Instagram to write: "Always a great feeling to be back in Madrid, one of the few cities in the world that I've learned to call 'home'.

"Great feelings, great players, great game, this is the Champions League! The mother of all club competitions! 

"Now we have the opportunity to close this for us in our stadium, showing everybody why Old Trafford is and will always be The Theatre of Dreams.

"Last but not least, thanks to our amazing supporters! Your presence make us stronger, and together we will go forward! Let's go, Devils!"

The Champions League returns on Wednesday as the first legs of the round of 16 come to an end.

Manchester United travel to the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid, with the visitors aiming to become just the fourth team to 500 goals in the European Cup and Champions League combined.

Erik ten Hag's Ajax thrilled in the group stages with their high-scoring and free-flowing football, and they make the trip to the Estadio da Luz to face Benfica in the other first-leg meeting.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data behind the pair of knockout fixtures in Europe's premier club competition.

Atletico Madrid v Manchester United

United and Atletico have somehow only faced each other in the same European campaign once previously, when the Spanish side were 4-1 victors on aggregate in the last 16 of the 1991-92 Cup Winners' Cup.

The Red Devils, on their only previous visit to Atletico, lost the first leg of that tie 3-0 at the old Vicente Calderon stadium against Luis Aragones' team.

Ralf Rangnick's away side will be hoping for happier returns on their next visit to Spain, where they have won just one of their last seven trips in the knockout stages of the Champions League (D4 L2).

But Diego Simeone's team have also tasted defeat in each of their last four matches against English teams in the competition, double the number of losses they suffered across their first 12 such matches (W4 D6 L2).

Atletico have won just four of their last 14 in the Champions League. Additionally, they have lost more times in their last four home games (three) than they did in across their previous 37 (two) in the competition.

The LaLiga outfit will have to contend with an old foe Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored 25 goals in 35 matches against them, only managing more versus Sevilla during his entire career.

Indeed, four of the forward's club hat-tricks have come against the Spanish side, two of which have been netted in this competition – no other player has recorded more against a single opponent in Europe's top club tournament.

Benfica v Ajax

Benfica may have won the first European meeting with Ajax, a 3-1 win in the first leg of the 1968-69 European Cup quarter-finals, but they are winless in their six games against them since.

Ajax are unbeaten in their previous three away games at Benfica in the European Cup and Champions League (W1 D2), with the most recent of these coming under Ten Hag’s stewardship, a 1-1 draw in November 2018.

The reigning Eredivisie champions are unbeaten in their four meetings with Portuguese sides in the competition (W3 D1), while Benfica have won just two of their last 11 clashes with Dutch opponents across the European Cup and Champions League (D4 L5).

To reach this stage, Ten Hag's men recorded six wins from six, which is the longest winning streak by a Dutch team in the European Cup and Champions League.

Should they manage victory in Portugal, Ajax's seven-game winning run would be the longest in the history of the two competitions by a team outside of the current big five European leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain).

Sebastian Haller fired his side into the knockout stages with 10 goals in six European outings, the most by any player in his opening six matches in the competition.

Playmaker Dusan Tadic has also created more chances from open play than any other player in the competition (77) since his debut in September 2018, but Benfica will not just roll over given they have recorded clean sheets in five of their last seven Champions League games.

Bruno Fernandes has become the latest player to dismiss reports of a divide in the Manchester United dressing room, insisting the team are sticking together.

A rift between captain Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo was reported ahead of Sunday's clash with Leeds United.

But Marcus Rashford and Maguire each responded on social media, while interim manager Ralf Rangnick described the claims as "absolute nonsense," before saying the 4-2 victory was the "perfect response" from his players.

Fernandes has also now denied the story, saying the togetherness and camaraderie of the group was evident in their goal celebrations at Elland Road.

"It is honestly people trying to complain and making stories about this club," said the Portugal midfielder ahead of Wednesday's game against Atletico Madrid.

"I don't know what people mean. I saw the goal of H [Maguire] and saw Paul [Pogba] running behind, sliding on his knees, happy for him. I was slapping his head and saying finally he had scored with that big head.

"We know when someone talks about this club or players at this club, it goes around the world with their voice. That is something that they want.

"For us, it is nothing. If we stick to the plan and stick together, that is the main thing: losing together and winning together." 

Cristiano Ronaldo sent a pointed "We stand United!" message after helping Ralf Rangnick's Red Devils score a dramatic 4-2 win over old foes Leeds.

The Elland Road victory for Manchester United came at the end of a week when the unity within Rangnick's dressing room has been called into question.

Suggestions of leaks from players to the press have seen criticism aimed at United stars, while it was even claimed Ronaldo and Harry Maguire are in a power struggle over the captaincy.

Interim head coach Rangnick shot down reports he was considering a mid-season change of skipper, saying defender Maguire would keep the job for the rest of the season. The German is in no position to make a longer-term pledge, given he is due to make way for a permanent boss once the campaign ends.

Maguire has also scoffed at the suggestion of such bickering in the squad. It was defender Maguire who headed United ahead in Sunday's Premier League clash in Leeds, while he also won all five of his duels.

Ronaldo was substituted with five minutes remaining, and there was no discontent from the Portuguese at that decision, when in the past he has at times taken issue with being replaced.

The victory strengthens United's hold on fourth place, and Ronaldo later declared: "Very important Premier League win before we change our focus to the Champions League and head to Madrid. Back on track! We stand United!"

The 37-year-old forward sent that message to his social media followers, who number 404 million on Instagram and 97.5 million on Twitter.

Ronaldo was not the only United player to celebrate with fans, as goalkeeper David de Gea told the United faithful in an Instagram post: "I guess you enjoyed as much as I did."

Winger Jadon Sancho also reacted, declaring: "A game we had to win. We delivered together as a team. Have a nice evening Reds."

Midfield general Paul Pogba savoured the occasion, and United's attitude to being pegged back from 2-0 to 2-2, writing: "It's not over until it's over. Great team spirit today, massive three points."

Cristiano Ronaldo's appearance in Manchester United's trip to Elland Road to face Leeds United saw the Portuguese legend record yet another entry into the Premier League record books.

In taking to the field on Sunday, the 37-year-old faced off against Leeds for the first time since October 18, 2003, marking the longest gap between a player's appearances against a specific opponent in the competition's history (18 years and 125 days).

Ronaldo was actually booked for diving on his first appearance at Elland Road, which came just two months into his first spell with the Red Devils, although Alex Ferguson's team stole a late 1-0 win on that day thanks to captain Roy Keane's header.

Ronaldo's goal in United's 2-0 win Brighton and Hove Albion last time out meant he has now scored against 168 different club and international sides during his glittering career, as the forward turns his attention to firing the Old Trafford club to Champions League qualification amid a frustrating campaign. 

Cristiano Ronaldo is "one of the greatest players to ever play the game" according to Leeds United full-back Luke Ayling, who is excited by the challenge of facing the Manchester United great.

Leeds renew acquaintances with their cross-Pennine rivals at Elland Road on Sunday, aiming to extract some revenge for a humiliating 5-1 opening-game reverse at Old Trafford.

Portugal legend Ronaldo had not yet completed his return to the Red Devils by that point and he has since scored 15 goals in all competitions in a season where United have flattered to deceive. 

Ronaldo ended a six-game goal drought by netting in United's 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion last time out, though, and Ayling is excited to pit his wits against the superstar forward.

"He's one of the greatest players to ever play the game; of course it's great to be on the same pitch as someone like that," he told Sky Sports.

"Everyone's watched him for years, it'll be nice to get on the same pitch as him and hopefully do well against him."

Leeds' own campaign has more miss than hit, with the Yorkshire outfit registering just five top-flight wins in a season ravaged by injuries.

The club's supporters were unable to attend last season's corresponding fixture, which finished 0-0, due to the coronavirus pandemic and Ayling is keen to give the Leeds faithful something to celebrate.

He added: "The game at Old Trafford was a weird one. We felt like we stayed in it first half, stayed alright, went in at 1-0 down and got it back to 1-1, then there was just a mad five minutes where they scored three goals and it was 4-1 before we knew it.

"We take a lot of heart from what we did against them at our place, I thought we did really well, and got a 0-0 draw, we coped with them really well.

"We knew the second year of being in the Premier League would be tough. We were still riding the wave of promotion the first year, we started well, and it kind of just carried on. But going into the second season, you've seen it loads of times before, you know it's going to be a tricky season.

"It hasn't helped that we've had so many injuries along the way, and it feels like once we get two or three back, then four get injured. It's been a hard season like that, but we keep plugging away and trying to get points to climb the table."

"We know what a big game it is for the fans. They've waited 17 years to get back into the ground to see this game, we played Man Utd last year without them here - the players will be rocking on Sunday, it's the one game I know they've been buzzing for.

"I think it gives the whole city, the whole club a lift [to win] and after the match last weekend, it's a good game for us to go in because we know the crowd's going to be behind us, 100 per cent. The place is going to be rocking, and it's a great chance for us."

Cristiano Ronaldo's future with Manchester United is uncertain amid a difficult season at Old Trafford.

The 37-year-old only joined United from Juventus in August, following interest from rivals Manchester City.

But the Red Devils are well out of the title race, with Ronaldo contributing nine league goals, in a tumultuous season that has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer axed as manager.

TOP STORY – MAN UTD WOULD BOW TO RONALDO TRANSFER DEMANDS

Manchester United will allow five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo to depart if he demands to depart in the off-season, reports the Sunday Mirror.

The Portuguese is ready to quit the Red Devils should they miss the top four and subsequently fail to qualify for the Champions League.

The report claims that Ronaldo was expecting to transfer United into title contenders but that his presence has become a sideshow, meaning they are willing to let him go.

 

ROUND-UP

- Raphinha has caught the eye of Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona but Leeds United plan to rebuff any offers him in the off-season according to The Mirror.

- The Mirror also reports that Arsenal are in the race for Napoli's Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz , joining Madrid and Barcelona.

- Liverpool target Fabio Carvalho is being pursued by Manchester United too, claims the Daily Star. The Fulham teenager came close to joining the Reds in January.

- Manchester City and Raheem Sterling are set for contract talks at the end of the season but the English leaders may sell him if he does not agree to a new deal, according to the Times.

- Fiorentina are interested in Manchester United full-back Diogo Dalot but would need to convince him to lower his wages, reports La Nazione. Dalot is in line for a new deal with United according to the Star.

- Liverpool Echo reports that Everton's Jean-Philippe Gbamin could join CSKA Moscow on loan with the Russian transfer window open until February 22.

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