MANCHESTER UNITED 1, SHAKHTAR DONETSK 0
Phil Jones scored the goal that secured Manchester United the top spot in Champions League Group A from a Robin Van Persie corner in the 67th minute of a poor European night. The result means United top the group and avoid a draw against a fellow group winner although on tonight’s showing David Moyes’ men will have to improve greatly to beat any team they end up facing in the knockout phase in February 2014.
A first win in a fortnight for Manchester United manager Moyes lifted some of the pressure off although the Scot couldn’t readily explain why United’s Champions League form was so much better than their Barclays Premier League form.
“If I had the answer I’d have solved it by now and we’d all be ok!” he quipped.
Moyes was understandably very happy to qualify as Group A winners with 14 points – their best return in the group stage with four wins and two draws since they won the competition in 2008 – and paid respect to their opponents.
“Shakhtar have lots of talented front players, quick and small, and they gave us the most problems in the Champions League this season.” he said.
“I think we wanted to try and win the group – a difficult group. I’m inexperienced in the Champions League but I’m happy we have topped the group.” he added.
“I think Manchester United could easily be classed as one of the favourites now. We as a team have to improve to keep progressing in the competition but we’ve given ourselves the best possible chance.
“We didn’t play particularly well in the opening 30 minutes, we went in fortunate to be 0-0.”
Moyes admitted there was a difference between the Champions League and the Barclays Premier League but wasn’t concerned about the continued lack of goals from open play recently.
He said: “I’m not concerned about only scoring goals from set pieces. We want to score more from open play and we missed a couple of good chances tonight. Ashley Young had two good chances.”
Moyes also highlighted the performance of Phil Jones, who also won plaudits from Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu, for his goalscoring performance.
“He’s a young boy, he’s doing great. His future is at centre half but he’s doing a good job for us in midfield at the moment.” added Moyes.
“We got a goal but there wasn’t much difference between the game tonight and the Everton and Newcastle games.
“I do believe there is a difference in playing style between Champions League and Premier League. The players here are well used to it and they are more than capable of playing at this level – we’re also comfortable in the Premier League but at the moment the players are not showing it.”
Victory meant United could put three poor results in the league behind them and begin to rebuild their fragile confidence and they will hope for an improvement in form with the knockout phase due to start in February.
United made six changes from the team that was beaten by Newcastle United on Saturday.
In came Rio Ferdinand, Alexander Buttner, Ryan Giggs, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj, and Ashley Young and out went Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Tom Cleverley, Javier Hernandez, Nani and Robin Van Persie.
For all the changes made, however, the glaring deficiencies of United’s midfield on the night were exposed by a fluid and attacking Shakhtar side who ran with the ball and embarrassed United at Old Trafford with a series of attacks combined with midfield pressing which could have put them into an easy and arguably match winning lead if Shakhtar’s forwards had brought their shooting boots to Old Trafford.
Taison had the early beating of Jones and Rafael, first feeding Alex Teixeira for a shot which went wide in the 14th minute and then wasting possession after going past Rafael himself a minute later.
Nervy United could have been a goal down in the 15th minute when Luiz Adriano almost capitalised on a mistake by De Gea at the edge of his own area.
Douglas Costa left Buttner on his backside in the 19th minute and raced past a couple of half hearted attempts to close him down before shooting wide of the near post. Costa tried again five minutes later unleashing a powerful shot which was wide at the near post.
The United defence were in disarray in the first half and veteran defender Ferdinand showed his age when he handed Shakhtar two chances under pressure during the first half after being caught in possession by Alex Teixeira and deflecting a Vyacheslav Shevchuck cross out for a corner with a clearance which might have beaten De Gea at his own far post.
United were once again lacking inspiration but Rooney provided most of the cheer for the home supporters starting with a flick for Kagawa which was too far ahead of the Japanese playmaker and collected by Andriy Pyatov who had raced off his line to collect.
Rooney hit the side netting on 32 minutes with a curling 30 yard free kick after Januzaj had been fouled and Ashley Young should really have opened the scoring after being put through by Giggs in the 37th minute but tried to chip Pyatov with Rooney in space but his effort went high and wide.
United improved in the second half – they could hardy be much worse than the abject display in the first half. Young could have scored again early in the second half but his curling cross/shot was clawed out from under his own bar by Pyatov.
Young also found Giggs waiting in the area but he couldn’t find Rooney in space and the chance was cleared.
Shakhtar tried to hit back and Luiz Adriano’s shot was blocked but the game was already petering out in the second half when filtered through that Bayer Leverkusen had taken the lead at Sociedad. A result meaning that the Ukrainians would not qualify for the Champions League knockout stage if they did not win too.
They were facing a revitalised United with a new sense of purpose early in the second half, though, and the Reds began to force the issue against a Shakhtar side that seemed to be fading rather than inspired to go on and convert chances into goals. Kagawa forced a corner from Rooney’s cross, Young’s cross/shot was just wide while Rooney’s audacious run and chip landed on top of the net.
David Moyes made a crucial change on the hour and brought Van Persie and Cleverley on for Young and Giggs. Still not match fit, Van Persie was only denied by a defender’s deflection from reaching a Rooney through ball that would have seen him clean through shortly after his introduction.
The Dutchman sent over a corner that was converted in the 67th minute by Jones who effectively finished off the visitors’ spirit when he stabbed home through a crowd of defenders.
It was relief all round for the Old Trafford faithful as Shakhtar’s fight fizzled out all too quickly in the mild December air but United will have to perform better at Villa Park on Sunday.