United secure win to top group but flaws still evident
David Moyes gains some breathing space to plan for hectic festive programme
Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa outjumps Shakhtar Donetsk’s Yaroslav Rakitskiy in this encounter during their tie at Old Trafford last night. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Manchester United 1 Shakhtar Donetsk 0
David Moyes will have felt the sweet surge of relief at the final whistle. This had become the game he dare not lose after consecutive 1-0 defeats to Everton and Newcastle United suffered by his Manchester United side here.
Fifty-one years had passed since United last experienced three defeats on the bounce at Old Trafford. In the days leading up to the Cuban missile crisis, Manchester City, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers all left victorious and, with the fierce scrutiny on Moyes, for that record to be ended by Shakhtar Donetsk would send the crowd home with more doubt regarding Alex Ferguson’s successor.
The strike that gave United a first victory of December was a scrappy Phil Jones 67th-minute effort, though that hardly matters as thoughts turn to Sunday’s trip to Aston Villa and trying to bridge the seven-point deficit to City and a Champions League berth.
“We had a disappointing five days here at Old Trafford,” Moyes mused before kick-off. “Prior to that we’d been on a healthy run and we now need to work hard to put together another sequence of good results. We are fully aware we need to play better.”
The side Moyes sent out featured no Robin van Persie, who was on the bench, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Marouane Fellaini, all of whom did not make the squad, alongside long-term absentee Michael Carrick. Last night was about the result and the performance. Given the choice, though, Moyes would plump for victory to ease the pressure and allow breathing space ahead of the festive programme.
There was scant sign of tension from the manager as he strode to his seat or in the opening move put together by his team, though this would prove the falsest of dawns. Adnan Januzaj passed to Shinji Kagawa, and he swept the ball over to Ashley Young only for the sequence to break down when Rafael da Silva mis-hit a cross.
Jones, partnering Ryan Giggs in central midfield, was next to punch a hole in the visitors’ rearguard but his weak shot was comfortable for Andriy Pyatov to collect.
Moments later the case of deja vu all over again that would last until half-time began as United fell asleep, and the Ukrainian side came close to taking the lead. The sideways stuff that points to the concerning malaise that is inhibiting the side caused Januzaj to give the ball away. Jones chose the wrong Shakhtar runner, so Taison could slip Alex Teixeira in beyond Rio Ferdinand and after the visiting captain left the defender flailing the finish beat David de Gea but was marginally wide of the left post.
Giggs, who joined the small band of footballers aged 40 to feature in the competition with this appearance, became the latest player in red to dawdle when he lost the ball, allowing Teixeira to again skate through and create more worry. Wayne Rooney 25-yard free-kick was the closest United had come to a goal. Yet after this brushed the side-netting the alarm was again sounded as Ferdinand lost the ball to Teixeira. He surged down the left before crossing, but though Fred got off a shot it was blocked.
By the break United had moved up a gear as first Rooney then Young (twice) spurned chances. The poorest came when Young pick-pocketed Darijo Srna but the winger’s lob over Pyatov was spooned wide when the better option was to square for Rooney to slot into the empty goal.
All of this meant that 258 minutes had passed since United last scored as they embarked upon the second half. While that strike was Rooney’s 57th-minute penalty in the 2-2 draw at Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the month, he could only watch as Yarolsav Rakitskyiy nearly scored, though the attempt was off target.
Moyes had said the plan was to give Van Persie 20 or 30 minutes if needed, as he continues to regain match fitness. The manager required little time to ask the Dutchman to warm up and before he threw him on was heartened by Kagawa’s volley and a Rooney sand-wedge over Pyatov. Then came Jones’s strike. Van Persie’s corner bounced once and the 21-year-old left Pyatov with no chance.
With this win United remain unbeaten in Group A and finish top – their best return since the 2007-08 victorious campaign – ahead of Monday’s knockout-phase draw.