Cristiano Ronaldo has rejoined Manchester United and is once again scoring goals. It felt a lot better than where he had been a week before, even though the five-time Ballon d'Or winner does not think the second division of European football tournament is worthy of his brilliance.
This time, he was among his teammates at Old Trafford celebrating progress to the Europa League knockout rounds rather than freshly showered, dressed, and almost home.
However, Man Utd still has more at stake when they travel to Real Sociedad in the coming week than just reputation. Whoever wins Group E advances to the round of 16 without having to face a team from the Champions League that has been eliminated in February.
Erik ten Hag and his team could do without an additional two-game tie due to their busy schedule, but only a victory at San Sebastian by a score of two goals or more can make that certain.
That will be a more difficult test than Sheriff Tiraspol's, who gallantly resisted until their defense was destroyed by a Diogo Dalot header just before halfway.
Before Ronaldo tenaciously poked home United's third goal, the hand full of boos from the crowd that had saluted his name even before to kickoff turned into a full, unmistakable remake of his "siu" catchphrase. Rashford and Ronaldo both came off the bench as substitutes.
Even though a win would be crucial to United's chances of winning the group, Ten Hag rotated where he thought he could. As a result, Ronaldo was quickly returned to the starting lineup, putting an end to the controversy surrounding his ill-fated walkout at Tottenham Hotspur last week.
Alejandro Garnacho, 18, made his full debut as a result. Last season, when he scored the game-winning goals in the FA Youth Cup final, he celebrated by mimicking Ronaldo's well-known celebration.
The whole of the first half was a representation of United's uneasy, in-between current, even if icons of their glorious past and promising future were attacking together.
Despite having far more resources and reputation than their group competitors, Utd have mostly struggled to win this Europa League campaign, beginning with losses to La Real and Omonia Nicosia.
The Moldovan champions originally put up a harder fight now that they were at Old Trafford, but only the journey to play Sheriff away in Chisinau has been in any way smooth.
Sheriff reduced Manchester 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 goal from a dead-on distance but not enough to beat Maxym Koval.
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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.
Sheriff, however, would not last as long. One of United's numerous first-half corner kicks found Dalot's head with a minute remaining in the half, and he headed in at the near post.
It was Dalot's first goal since an FA Cup fourth-round victory at Tranmere Rovers almost three years ago, and his first at Old Trafford in his four and a half years with United. It was an unexpected surprise of a breakthrough.
When United made some progress, Ten Hag used it as a chance to bring club captain Harry Maguire, who had chosen to take Lisandro Martinez's place at halftime. However, United's lead was increased by yet another substitute.
Luke Shaw was located in space after a patient, well-executed move from right to left, and his clipped cross was at the ideal height for Rashford to head in again at the near post, surprising Koval.
With the ball at his feet on the edge of the penalty area and just enough space to aim for the top right-hand corner, Ronaldo could have added the second himself some few minutes earlier. However, he chose to shoot wide.
The Portuguese forward paused for a while as he thought about a shot that did not indicate he was the best scorer of his time.
But he wouldn't back down. His header was well-connected to a Fernandes cross, but Koval saved it. To his credit, Ronaldo quickly got back up and sprinted in the direction of the goal, gaining enough space to stab the misplaced ball into the tiniest opening still available.
Although it surely won't be enough to guarantee him a starting spot against West Ham on Sunday, it was enough to imply that Ten Hag, United, and Ronaldo had put the current issues behind them.
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Joy Obi 30 w
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