Cristiano Ronaldo’s 50th club career hat-trick dug Manchester United out of a hole against lowly Norwich City as the under-par Red Devils won 3-2 at Old Trafford.
The 37-year-old’s treble was his second in his past three Premier League appearances and took him to 21 goals for the season, going through the 20 barrier for a 16th consecutive campaign.
Ronaldo moved to 99 Premier League goals in his career, and United could only thank him for sparing them a potentially embarrassing afternoon.
He put United two up early on, but Norwich hit back through Kieran Dowell and Teemu Pukki, only for former Real Madrid and Juventus star Ronaldo to lash a free-kick winner through the grasp of Tim Krul in the 76th minute.
David de Gea sprinted from his line to expertly block Pukki’s attempted dink over the goalkeeper in the third minute, and Norwich would soon regret failing to take that golden chance
Ronaldo saw a fizzing 20-yard shot saved by Krul in the seventh minute, but seconds later the United man did better, with Anthony Elanga dispossessing Ben Gibson in the penalty area and squaring for an easy close-range finish.
United kept pressing against opponents who at that point appeared ripe to be picked off, and Ronaldo got their second in the 32nd minute when he headed a corner from the right by Alex Telles past Krul.
Norwich surprisingly got one back in first-half stoppage time when Pukki’s cross from the left was nodded in at the far post by an unmarked Dowell.
Incredibly, having been outplayed for so long, Norwich got level after 52 minutes when Pukki tucked past De Gea after Dowell played him in and the striker stayed just onside.
United lacked coherence in attack and were out of sorts throughout, with De Gea having to save well from Milot Rashica to keep the hosts on level terms, but then up stepped Ronaldo from 25 yards to save the day.
What does it mean? Ronaldo shows his value
On the day thousands of United supporters staged their latest protest against the Glazer ownership, this was not a team performance to provide any sort of cheerful distraction, but Ronaldo supplied that. With Arsenal and Tottenham losing, suddenly United are back in the hunt for fourth place, three points back in fifth place.
Paul Pogba, whose performance lacked punch, was caught in the face by Harry Maguire’s boot at one point and his day went from bad to worse when he was jeered off by home fans.
While Pogba will surely be leaving at the season’s end, it would be a brave new manager who looks to move on from Ronaldo on this face-saving evidence.
Can United cope without him?
Including international football, this was the 60th hat-trick of Ronaldo’s career. Could United cope without such goal power?
It has been reported United’s likely next boss Erik ten Hag does not fancy Ronaldo in his team. If that is true, surely this provides food for thought.
After hitting three against Tottenham last month, this was his third United treble (one in 2008, two in 2022). He hit three for Juventus and an incredible 44 hat-tricks for Madrid.
Ronaldo is 17 years and 81 days older than Elanga, who assisted his opening goal. That is the widest age gap between a Manchester United goalscorer and the player who assisted him in their Premier League history.
United travel to face title-hunting Liverpool on Tuesday in the Premier League, while Norwich hosts Newcastle United next Saturday.