Cristiano Ronaldo is back in the Manchester United side and back in the goals too. And even if the five-time Ballon d’Or winner does not believe the second tier of European football competition is befitting of his genius, it felt a lot better than where he was a week ago.
his time, when the final whistle sounded at Old Trafford, he was not washed, changed and already halfway home but with his team-mates, celebrating passage to the knock-out stages of the Europa League.
There is still more than pride for United to play for away to Real Sociedad next week, though. Whoever wins Group E will avoid having to play an eliminated Champions League side in February’s play-off round and instead reach the last 16 automatically.
In a packed schedule, Erik ten Hag and his players could do without an extra two-legged tie but only winning by two clear goals in San Sebastian will guarantee that.
That will be a sterner test than the one provided by Sheriff Tiraspol, who bravely held out until their resistance was broken by a Diogo Dalot header on the cusp of half-time.
Marcus Rashford came off the substitutes’ bench to add a second before Ronaldo doggedly poked home United’s third, turning the smattering of boos that had greeted his name before kick-off into a full, unambiguous rendition of his ‘siu’ catchphrase.
Despite the importance of a victory to United’s hopes of topping the group, Ten Hag rotated where he felt he could. That meant a swift return to the starting line-up for Ronaldo, putting last week’s controversial walkout against Tottenham Hotspur and his subsequent axing to bed once and for all.
It also meant a full debut for Alejandro Garnacho, the 18-year-old who celebrated scoring the decisive goals in last season’s FA Youth Cup final by imitating Ronaldo’s famous celebration.
If symbols of United’s glorious past and bright future were playing alongside each other in attack, the vast majority of the first half was emblematic of their awkward, transitional present.
Despite dwarfing their group rivals in resources and stature, United have largely made hard work of this Europa League campaign, starting with defeat to la Real then twice struggling past Omonia Nicosia.
Only the trip to play Sheriff away in Chisinau has proved in any way comfortable but the Moldovan champions initially put up a stiffer resistance now that they were at Old Trafford.
Under caretaker manager Victor Mihailov, drafted in at short notice after Stjepan Tomas resigned earlier this week, Sheriff limited United to hopeful shots from range and half chances.
Ronaldo missed the best of them, getting enough of a connection on a knock-down from Bruno Fernandes to turn it towards goal at point-blank range, but not enough of one to beat goalkeeper Maxym Koval.
For a while, it appeared as though Koval might put on a similar show to Francis Uzoho, his Omonia Nicosia counterpart who threw himself in front of everything a fortnight ago until Scott McTominay’s stoppage-time winner.
Sheriff would not hold out as long, though. With a minute to play before the break, one of United’s many first-half corners found the head of Dalot, who glanced in at the near post.
An unlikely source of a breakthrough, it was Dalot’s first goal since an FA Cup fourth-round win at Tranmere Rovers nearly three years ago, and the first at Old Trafford of his four-and-a-half years at United.
Ten Hag took that breakthrough as an opportunity to reintroduce club captain Harry Maguire, who replaced Lisandro Martinez at half-time, but it was another substitute who doubled United’s lead.
A patient, well-worked move from right to left found Luke Shaw in space and his clipped cross was at the perfect height for Rashford to nod in once more at the near post, catching Koval off guard.
Ronaldo might have added the second himself a few minutes earlier when, with the ball at his feet on the perimeter of the penalty area and just enough of a gap to aim for the top right-hand corner, he instead fired wide.
The Potuguese striker stood still for a moment, contemplating a finish that did not suggest he is the greatest goalscorer of his generation.
But he would not be denied. After connecting well with a Fernandes cross, Koval parried his header. To Ronaldo’s credit, he immediately picked himself up and scrambled towards goal, making up enough ground to stab the loose ball into the small gap still open.
It will probably not be enough to earn him a starting place for West Ham’s visit on Sunday but it was enough to suggest that the recent tensions are behind Ten Hag, United and Ronaldo.
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