Manchester United picked up their first points of the Europa League season with a 2-0 win over Sheriff in Moldova on Thursday. Having lost their opening game at home to Real Sociedad, Erik ten Hag’s side had work to do in Group E but they rarely looked like struggling in Eastern Europe, brushing aside a team that had stunned Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League.
Jadon Sancho struck in the 17th minute to quell any early pressure from Sheriff, linking well with Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen before driving low into the bottom corner. From there United turned the screw and before the half was out the pressure had told, Patrick Kpozo clumsily bringing down Diogo Dalot.
Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up from the spot to score his first-ever goal in the Europa League. United needed no more from him or anyone else in a sedate second half as the Red Devils eased through their final game before the international break.
Here’s what to know:
Sancho makes his case to Southgate
Such is the strength in depth for England in attacking areas, there were plenty who might have felt aggrieved not to have been in Gareth Southgate’s plans. Sancho was certainly among those after a far better start to his second season with Manchester United than his first. That continued in Chisinau, starting with a calmly taken goal in the 17th minute, just as Sheriff pressure was beginning to build on the visiting penalty area.
As has so often been the case this season, Eriksen was giving the United forwards just the sort of service they needed. A precise pass from the Dane found Sancho just inside the penalty area, three quick steps and he was driving low past Maxym Koval. He might have had a second before the half was out, benefitting once more from the vision of a summer signing as Antony picked him out at the back post. Once more the Sheriff goalkeeper was beaten but Stjepan Radeljic made up ground in remarkable fashion to clear the ball off the line.
After a season where his starting position seemed to change as often as the man in the Old Trafford dugout, Sancho seems settled at last. Since Antony’s arrival, there is a spot in the side that is his and he can be relatively certain that he will be United’s left winger barring an almighty dip in form. One might debate whether his best form at Borussia Dortmund came on the left or right (he was great in both spots after all), but it is clearly better for him to have a run of games in one spot rather than functioning as a center forward one week then swapping from one flank to the other in the next few.
This was not Sancho’s best game of late in a United shirt but under Ten Hag’s stewardship, he has been able to raise the floor of what he delivers in-game, becoming a more consistent and reliable force. He now has three goals in his last six games, all bar one of which have come from off the left wing. Sancho has only a few weeks to convince Southgate that he is doing enough to go to Qatar but if this is the baseline of performances, he still has a shot.
Sheriff show they belong on European stage
This may not have been a repeat of the iconic scenes at the Santiago Bernabeu last year but the champions of Moldova proved they belonged among the biggest names in Europe once more. It would be hard enough for last year’s team to simply repeat the tricks that saw them surprise so many on the European stage but then this was not even that version of Sheriff. None of the starters from the 2-1 win over Real Madrid were in the XI at Stadionul Zimbru, the stars of that side such as Cristiano, Adama Traore and match winner Sebastien Thill have understandably parlayed their fine Champions League form into a move elsewhere.
Still, Sheriff, funded by the company of a former KGB agent that dominates Transnistria, have replaced those names with talent aplenty. Cedric Badolo and Mouhamed Diop looked solid in possession in the engine room whilst Iyayi Atiemwen, who had scored in the 3-0 win at Omonia on Matchday 1, was not afraid to shoot his shot. Perhaps the standout performer was captain Radeljic, so often on hand to flick a United pass to safety as Ronaldo loomed menacingly over his shoulder.
One suspects that this cosmopolitan squad will not be together all that long but between now and November they do at least have a chance to, at the very least, secure Europa Conference League football for the new year. Indeed if they can just find the killer pass that eluded them in this one, they might be able to cause some damage to Real Sociedad in the upcoming games.
Yet more history looms for Ronaldo
Returning to the Manchester United starting XI for the first time since the 4-0 loss to Brentford last month, Cristiano Ronaldo did not offer much to suggest that Ten Hag needs to rip apart a plan that increasingly seems to have moved beyond the Portuguese. The 37-year-old veteran would go ever deeper in search of the ball, registering far more touches in Dalot’s area of the pitch than as a center forward. That would work fine if he were bringing defenders with him, but the Sheriff back four seemed happy to let him roam and with good reason. On the one occasion he really stretched into the space behind the Sheriff defense he blazed high and wide, though Radeljic might have got a feint touch to put him off his stride.
Still Ronaldo did what Ronaldo does, scoring United’s second from the penalty spot and effectively killing off the contest. He is now up to 699 club goals for his career, so of course, the Manchester derby looms large in United’s next game. His footballing powers may not be what they were, but this is a man whose narrative abilities remain undimmed. Who would bet against him at the Etihad Stadium next month?