Cristiano Ronaldo’s return after a one-game hiatus had the grandstand finish he 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 directly reach the last 16 they must beat Real Sociedad in the final group game by two clear goals. If this is a possibility more than a probability, surer is how the timeless Ronaldo, still believing after a slew of missed chances, was quick to hammer home after Maksym Koval saved his header. The finish was a sweet riposte to his exclusion for the draw at Chelsea after refusing to enter from the bench against Tottenham and leaving before the end.
Ten Hag said: “He kept going – he didn’t give up – this is why he is so good. Seeing Ronaldo get his goal was great. He created, the team created for him and we know he has the capability to finish. He needed a goal and now I’m confident there will be more.”
After Ronaldo’s name was announced to loud cheers he 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 deep, and Garnacho offered a flash of quality when a weaving run found Ronaldo. He fed Antony, whose snap-shot was gathered by Koval.
This followed a Christian Eriksen chip for Tyrell Malacia 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 for Ronaldo, yielding 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.
Two goals in 12 appearances going into this game had been 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 hinted at why: a crucial slowing in the 37-year-old’s synapses that has dulled his edge. There was, though, nothing sluggish about the dash that took Ronaldo on to 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, were clinging on. Koval dived right to save Eriksen’s shot, then Bruno Fernandes hoped to turn the rebound towards Ronaldo but failed. Next, the latter dropped a shoulder and pulled the trigger from distance but Gaby Kiki blocked his effort.
United’s 77.2% possession as half-time beckoned told the story of the first 45 minutes, although there was a warning when Sheriff broke and Patrick Kpozo flipped over a ball that Rasheed Akanbi should have headed in. 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. Of Antony’s trick Ten Hag said: “I have no problem with that as long as it is functional.”
Rashford took up Fernandes’s usual No 10 berth, the Portuguese moving right to fill in for the departed Antony – a Ten Hag move 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 it clear but only to see those in red continue hogging possession. Ronaldo’s next contribution was to receive an Eriksen tap, jink right and, with Koval’s goal begging, somehow blaze wide. His reaction – one of deep disappointment – was understandable. When he did volley in only to see the flag raised, frustration had Ronaldo smashing the ball into the Stretford End, yet this illustrated an ever-growing sharpness.
United’s second strike was a simple affair. Luke Shaw, another substitute, teed up Rashford, who headed in convincingly for his sixth goal of the campaign. Garnacho deserved his applause when taken off, though Ten Hag revealed previous disquiet. “I was not happy with him – his attitude, young kids have to grow and know what the laws are in top football,” he said.
Yet again, though, Ronaldo seized the narrative.