Cristiano Ronaldo’s return after a one-game hiatus had the grandstand finish he just loves to produce: an 81st-minute strike that confirmed Manchester United’s qualification for the Europa League knockout round playoffs, at least.
For Erik ten Hag’s team to reach the last 16 directly they must beat Real Sociedad in the final group game by two clear goals. If this is unlikely, what was definitely unsurprising was how the timeless Ronaldo, still believing in himself after a slew of missed chances, was quick to hammer home after Maxym Koval saved his header. The goal may be read as a sweet riposte to his exclusion for the draw at Chelsea after refusing to enter against Tottenham and exiting before the end.
After his name was announced to loud cheers and, maybe, a smattering of jeers, Ronaldo hoped to recommence what he loves to do: score goals. In this endeavour he had to his left the full debutant Alejandro Garnacho, who according to Ten Hag has the “x factor”.
That quality would be needed to break down Sheriff, who were content to sit in a deep, defensive 4-5-1 shape, and Garnacho offered a flash of his quality when his weaving run found Ronaldo. He fed Antony, whose snap-shot was gathered by Maxym Koval.
This followed a Christian Eriksen chip for Tyrell Malacia, one of four United changes, that went close to playing the left-back in and preceded a corner from the Dane which Casemiro headed at Stjepan Radeljic, the visiting captain.
The flurry of chances continued when Garnacho roved in from the left and aimed the ball at Ronaldo, resulting in another corner. The delivery was steered on to the roof of the net by the Portuguese but United had their opponents precisely where they wanted: under siege.
The pace was a stroll, Eriksen again able to dink in a lob – this time for Garnacho, who should have smashed at Koval.
Two goals in 12 appearances going into this game was a below-par return for Ronaldo. The way he strode forward and pulled back a foot to let fly only for Moussa Kyabou to smother him pointed at the reason behind it: a crucial slowing in the 37-year-old’s synapses that has dulled his edge. There was, though, nothing sluggish about the run that took Ronaldo on to the end of a Bruno Fernandes cross but, from close range, he fluffed the chance.
The Moldovan side, managed by Victor Mihailov after Stjepan Tomas’s resignation earlier this week, continued to cling on. Koval dived right to save Eriksen’s shot, then Fernandes tried to turn the rebound towards Ronaldo but failed to find him. Next, the latter dropped a shoulder and pulled the trigger from distance but Gaby Kiki got his body in the way.
United’s 77.2% possession as half-time beckoned told the story of the first 45 minutes. But when Sheriff broke and Patrick Kpozo flipped over a ball that Ibrahim Akanbi Rasheed should have headed home there was a warning. At last, though, Ten Hag’s men had their reward: an Eriksen corner from the left was met by Diogo Dalot, who rose to beat Koval.
For the second half Marcus Rashford replaced Antony, who may not have impressed Ten Hag with a showboating 720-degree spin before the break, while Lisandro Martínez made way for Harry Maguire. The captain, on for his first United action in seven weeks after an injury, received mild boos: hardly the finest welcome back.
Rashford took up Fernandes’s usual No 10 berth, the Portuguese moving right to fill in for the departed Antony – a Ten Hag move that may have been designed to harness Rashford’s pace directly behind Ronaldo.
Patience and poise were required to double the lead. Garnacho seriously lacked the second quality when lashing a regulation cross all the way over to the right; far better was the darting run and ball moments later that did hit the danger area.
Sheriff scrambled clear but only to see those in red to continue hogging possession. Ronaldo’s next contribution was to receive an Eriksen tap, jink right and, with Koval’s goal begging to be found, somehow blaze wide. His reaction – deep disappointment – was understandable but this was still positive. When he did volley in only to see the flag raised, frustration had Ronaldo smashing the ball into the Stretford End, yet this again illustrated an ever-growing sharpness.
The second goal for United was a simple affair. Luke Shaw, another substitute, teed up Rashford, who headed in convincingly for his sixth goal of the campaign. But, yet again, it was Ronaldo who seized the narrative.