The Portuguese star puts the “walkout” controversy behind him, but it’s unlikely he’ll play against West Ham this weekend.
Cristiano Ronaldo has rejoined Manchester United and is once again scoring goals. It felt a lot better than where he was a week before, even though the five-time Ballon d’Or winner does not think the second division of European football competition is worthy of his brilliance.
This time, he was among his teammates at Old Trafford celebrating advancement to the Europa League knockout rounds rather than freshly showered, changed, and halfway home.
There is still more than pride for United to play 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 a defeat to la Real and 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.
Sheriff restricted United to optimistic long-range shoots and half-chance opportunities under interim manager Victor Mihailov, who was brought in on short notice after Stjepan Tomas resigned earlier this week.
The best opportunity was lost by Ronaldo, who managed to connect with Bruno Fernandes’ knockdown just enough to turn the ball toward the goal from a dead-on distance but not enough to beat Maxym Koval.
Before Scott McTominay’s stoppage-time winner, it seemed as though Koval would put on a similar performance to Francis Uzoho, his Omonia Nicosia rival who pushed himself in front of everything a week before.
The 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 Portuguese 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 toward a 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.