This was not an evening that will live long in the memory but Manchester United got the job done professionally and there were individual morsels of good news, too. They needed to give themselves a foothold in Group E and, against a bright but blunt Sheriff Tiraspol, that was achieved with ultimate ease.
A third goal of the season for Jadon Sancho paved the way and perhaps provided some consolation for his latest omission from the England squad; before half-time Cristiano Ronaldo, not used to waiting this long, broke his duck for the campaign with a penalty and a strong United side eased home after that.
Erik ten Hag had not taken chances with his starting XI, perhaps mindful that minutes for his better players were more useful than not given they will not play together again until the derby on 2 October. It was a productive enough runout, performed without the need to over-extend against opponents who were not recognisable in any sense from the side that defeated Real Madrid in the Champions League almost a year ago.
The serial Moldovan title winners caused shockwaves back then but such is the flux of their squad that none of the starters on that unfathomable night in the Bernabeu began this game. Some have moved on to bigger things while the manager who masterminded the feat, Yuriy Vernydub, left to serve in the army of his native Ukraine and now coaches FC Kryvbas. Russia’s invasion had a more direct impact on this fixture: it was played in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, because Uefa have blocked Sheriff from playing home games in the Russian-backed breakaway state Transnistria.
Sheriff began at speed, the Burkina Faso pair Cedric Badolo and Abou Ouattara offering energy and quick feet on either side. Mouhamed Diop dipped an effort well over from range and there was enough to enthuse the home crowd.
“A difficult start,” admitted Ten Hag, who was unhappy at the number of second balls Sheriff won early on. But United quietened them quickly enough by scoring with their first moment of genuine threat. The goal was smartly wrought and taken, Christian Eriksen finding space before chopping a clever ball inside for Sancho to control with his instep. Sancho lost Armel Zohouri with a deft turn onto his left foot and drilled crisply across Maksym Koval.
“I’m really pleased [for him],” Ten Hag said of Sancho, whose United career is beginning to take off. “He’s doing well, but I think there’s much more room for improvement for him because he has so many skills.”
He used them again to beat Koval, who had played his team into trouble, from an angle but was denied by a heroic goalline clearance from Stjepan Radeljic. That appeared to keep Sheriff, who had kept United honest when Iyayi Atiemwen shot narrowly wide, in the contest but it was put beyond them within seconds. Diogo Dalot, perhaps United’s best performer on the night, ran onto a chipped Bruno Fernandes pass and was clipped needlessly by Patrick Kpozo; the award of a penalty was not in doubt.
Ronaldo had come close when lashing over after a fine lofted pass from Antony, but had no problem finding his bearings from this most conventional of positions. He shot straight down the middle and now sits one short of 700 club goals, a target he tried to meet in the second period with a sidefooted effort that floated off target.
“He’s really close, when he gets his fitness he will score more,” Ten Hag said. “Ronaldo needed that goal. Many times he came close, but he wanted that so much. We are happy for him and the team wanted to bring him a goal. You know that Cristiano will score a penalty.”
It was also a safe bet that United had the game won from that point. The second period was a non-event beyond an early flash of excitement when Fernandes was denied by Koval after Dalot’s cutback. The impressive Badolo gave David de Gea something to do with a rare effort and Rasheed Akanbi caused brief flutters with a lob but any sense of jeopardy had long dissipated. United could tick along and Ten Hag, who deployed Casemiro in Scott McTominay’s place at the interval, could consider his choices vindicated in an exercise efficiently ticked off.
“It’s about picking the best team in every game,” he said. “We have a good squad, so everyone can play.” It was hardly the most illuminating of sentiments, but then this was hardly the most enthralling of nights.