All that was missing was the upturned collar, but Ronaldo's celebration, a knowing look and a shrug of the shoulders, was pure Cantona.
While Cantona's powers ultimately proved impotent in the Champions League, however, Ronaldo's fifth goal in five European games this season underlined the belief that his talents will not be found wanting as United attempt to add a third European Cup to their honours list.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: "It was a truly excellent goal, a marvellous strike, but he has done it many times before. Ronaldo works very hard for moments like that. He was only 18 when he came to us from Sporting and that was a disadvantage in Europe, but he is maturing and does what we expect him to do now. He certainly has the ability to score goals, though, and he can do even better than last season."
With two minutes of stoppage time played, Ronaldo had no margin for error when he placed the ball for a direct free-kick 30 yards out after a foul on Anderson.
Anything but a goal would have left United needing to avoid defeat against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico on Dec 12 to be certain of top spot and a place among the seeded teams in the last 16, yet the pressure to deliver was nothing to the Portuguese forward and he secured the victory with a swerving strike that will make the trip to Rome nothing more than an exercise in squad rotation.
Ronaldo said: "It was a fabulous goal. I did not celebrate when I scored against Sporting in Lisbon, but this goal was different and I am very happy because it is always important to win and top the group."
Despite Ferguson's pre-match assertion that his team would keep their foot firmly on the pedal in order to claim the victory that would clinch the group, United's Champions League history is littered with insipid performances once qualification to the knock-out stages has been secured, and their first-half display was on a par with previous low points against Fenerbahce and Maccabi Haifa. United were surprisingly beaten on both those occasions, conceding top spot in the group when losing to Fenerbahce in 2004, so Ferguson's determination to claim three points against Sporting was borne out of painful experience.
Playing for the top position and fighting for Champions League survival are two hugely different objectives, however, and the urgency that United lacked was present in every tackle, shot and pass made by Paulo Bento's players.
An already-qualified Croatia may have played like men possessed against England at Wembley last week, but United displayed no such desire in the early stages.
Joao Moutinho sent a 25-yard effort narrowly wide of Tomasz Kuszczak's right-hand post as Sporting went close with 12 minutes on the clock and, after Louis Saha had wasted a clear chance following a Ronaldo flick seven minutes later, Bento's team took the lead with a goal that would have left United's Polish goalkeeper suffering that Scott Carson feeling.
Miguel Veloso's pass to Abel on the right flank posed no obvious threat to United, but Abel spotted a sizeable gap between Kuszczak and his near post and the midfielder scored with a bewitching effort from a demanding angle with the outside of his right foot.
Trailing at half-time and with Roma already 3-0 ahead against Dynamo Kiev in Ukraine, United had to raise their game after the break if they were to take the sting out of the trip to Rome and the introduction of Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs injected purpose into United's play.
But with Saha continuing to perform like a player shorn of fitness and confidence, Ferguson's team lacked an obvious cutting edge.
The energy of Tevez and Ronaldo posed Sporting problems, but it was not until Tevez diverted Ronaldo's miscued shot into the net after 61 minutes that United seriously threatened the Sporting goal.
At 1-1, top place in the group was still not secured and Ronaldo, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick all saw chances go begging before Ronaldo delivered his killer blow.
With the group safely negotiated, Ferguson admitted that he will not waste the luxury of being able to rest key men in Rome next month.
He said: "We have a game at Liverpool four days after Rome, so I will certainly use all of my squad against Roma. One or two players won't even travel, but we will still try to win the game."