This was about as textbook as European away wins come and, for Manchester United, there were individual morsels of good news too. Erik ten Hag will be pleased with a third goal of the season for Jadon Sancho, who opened the scoring after a competent but blunt Sheriff Tiraspol had started well, while the clincher was notable in its own way. Cristiano Ronaldo is not used to waiting this long for his first goal of the season and a penalty before half-time was a mundane way to find it; he is now off the mark, though, and sits one short of 700 in his club career.
United now have a foothold in Group E and Ten Hag’s decision to treat Sheriff with the utmost respect, making five changes but selecting a formidable starting XI, was borne out by a professional display. Given the chasm in United’s schedule, which now gives them another two and a half weeks off, it felt a productive runout.
There was always a sense United would have to ride out an early squall. This was an opportunity for Sheriff’s young, multinational squad to put themselves in the shop window and the home side certainly had examples to draw upon. It is almost a year since the Moldovans caused shockwaves by winning at Real Madrid: none of the players who started that night did so here, some having moved on to bigger things, while the manager Yuriy Vernydub departed earlier this year to serve in his native Ukrainian army and now coaches FC Kryvbas.
So it was that 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 plenty to enthuse the home crowd. Sheriff were obliged to host in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital; their home city lies in Transnistria, the Russian-backed breakaway state, and Uefa barred them from hosting European fixtures there after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The serial champions are far from everybody’s cup of tea in Moldova but were vocally backed.
United quietened them quickly enough by scoring with their first moment of genuine threat. The goal was smartly wrought and taken, Christian Eriksen 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; it was some compensation, at least, for missing out on a return to England duty earlier in the day.
Sheriff did not wilt, the striker Iyayi Atiemwen flashing just wide after a strong run. But United now had a platform and almost built on it shortly after the half-hour when Ronaldo lashed over after an exquisite lofted Antony pass. They came even closer when, after Koval had played his team into trouble, Stjepan Radeljic made a heroic goalline clearance from Sancho’s angled shot.
Radeljic had kept his side in the game, but not for long. He must have cursed when the left-back Patrick Kpozo almost immediately clipped Diogo Dalot, who had been sent away by a chipped pass from Bruno Fernandes, in the box. There was little doubt about the penalty award and Ronaldo broke his duck by firing down the middle.
Scott McTominay was given a breather at the interval, Casemiro’s introduction meaning there was now someone on show who could tell the tale of Sheriff’s Bernabeu feat. Fernandes came close to rendering that even more of a distant memory almost immediately but, after meeting Dalot’s cutback on the run, he was denied sharply by Koval’s legs.
This was becoming an exercise in control for United, who had a monopoly on possession as the hour approached but showed little particular sign of going for the jugular. Ronaldo was close to connecting with a devilish Eriksen cross, Radeljic intervening adeptly again, before Rasheed Akanbi lobbed not too far off target during a relatively rare Sheriff break.
Badolo, always bright, warmed David de Gea’s hands from 25 yards. Ronaldo sidefooted off target in search of the elusive milestone but the second half of this contest had, in truth, been little more than a non-event.