There were ‘Siiiu’s rather than boos, “Viva Ronaldo” reverberated around Old Trafford and Cristiano Ronaldo was back on the scoresheet again.
It takes a particularly egregious act for United matchgoers to boo players past or present and Ronaldo, an undeniable club great, has enriched their lives too much to ever be subjected to such ignominy. The adoration from the Stretford End at full-time was palpable.
A week on from a PR-massaged statement of contrition, Ronaldo returned to the normality of starting and scoring for his club. He is far from guaranteed that against West Ham on Sunday but tensions have been defused and he was appreciative of the support from teammates and matchgoers.
Ronaldo’s body language – a wink for the camera, a thumbs-up for Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martinez, charitably allowing Christian Eriksen to take a free-kick and interaction with supporters – was as bullish as in training on Wednesday. Ronaldo was at the front of the queue and the first on the ball at Carrington.
Against shy Sheriff, his movement was lither and Ronaldo’s determination was back after last week’s aberration. In the 59th minute, the Stretford End broke into a rendition of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ after the away-dayers principally avoided deifying him at Chelsea.
For a team that has misfired of late, United have had no trouble shooting past Sheriff in Moldova and Manchester. Their most serene victories have come against the Europa League fodder and United were still merciful with their conversion rate in their second meeting.
Predictably as dominant as they were blunt in the first-half, it was apposite a defender – Diogo Dalot – was responsible for the breakthrough from Christian Eriksen’s corner less than two minutes to half-time. United at least recorded their biggest win of the campaign, still a modest 3-0.
Dalot ensured the second-half was a procession, Ten Hag having the luxury of introducing England internationals Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford at the pause. The latter headed in clinically and now has more goals this season than he tallied last season.
Maguire appeared for the first time in seven weeks and Donny van de Beek, remarkably still revered by United’s matchgoers, emerged. Lisandro Martinez, Antony, Dalot and Casemiro earned overdue breathers.
United would have had to have lost 3-0 not to have progressed to the knockout stage. They have to beat Group E leaders Real Sociedad by two goals in San Sebastian next week to secure two free midweeks in February, otherwise one of the Champions League departees await.
The Europa League has traditionally been a breeding ground for the United academy and Alejandro Garnacho’s inclusion enlivened an otherwise senior selection by Erik ten Hag.
Garnacho’s brother, sporting a United shirt with his name and number, filmed the teams’ entrance and was soon so overcome with emotion he wept. Four or five members of the Garnacho fan club were present in the directors’ box and one warmly greeted the United football director John Murtough.
Training with Messi, playing with Ronaldo, winning the FA Youth Cup, debuting for United and starting for United is an annus mirabilis worthy of tears. Garnacho was unfazed on his full debut and the sound of plastic seats clattering indicated he drew thousands off them.
Ten Hag has made bolder calls than starting an 18-year-old winger yet in selecting Garnacho over Anthony Elanga further distanced United from the disarray of last season. Elanga is Ralf Rangnick’s legacy and Garnacho could be Ten Hag’s, although he debuted under Rangnick in April. The subdued Jadon Sancho has an extra competitor.
Elanga went over a month without getting a kick for United until last week and while he puts in a shift he struggles to put the ball in the back of the net. The Swede is without a United goal since February and Garnacho has the cachet of six goals in five Youth Cup ties though his selflessness was standout.
Garnacho travelled to Bangkok, Melbourne and Perth on tour without getting a kick before flourishing in the final friendly against Rayo Vallecano in July. He has had to settle for unmemorable cameos this season and nights in Carlisle and Barrow with the Under-21s in the EFL Trophy. Auspiciously, Garnacho tallied an assist and a goal in those tests.
Garnacho arrived at the United academy the same summer Facundo Pellistri joined the first-team and the latter, an unused substitute for the eighth game running, is still awaiting his debut two years on.
United threatened to frustrate again. Antony exhibited the ‘Anturny’ and the crowd approved, only the game was goalless, half-time looming and his pass rolled into the goalkeeper’s path.
Diogo Dalot did not entirely approve and demanded a more intense focus. Appropriately, Dalot spared Old Trafford from a fifth consecutive goalless first-half. Then another Portuguese finished the scoring.