Manchester United rediscovered the winning feeling at Old Trafford by beating Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday to finish top of Group A and eliminate the Ukrainian champions.
Phil Jones’ fiercely struck volley in the 67th minute ensured United finished the group stage unbeaten and is more likely to face a weaker team in the draw for the last 16.
Shakhtar needed a win to guarantee joining United in the knockout stage but failed to cap its early dominance with a goal and ended up third in the group behind Bayer Leverkusen, which beat Real Sociedad 1-0. Shakhtar drops into the Europa League.
It was a morale-boosting – if unconvincing – win for United, which lost Premier League matches to Everton and Newcastle in the past week to leave the team languishing in ninth place in the standings, 15 points off leader Arsenal. Not since October 1962 and the week before the outbreak of the Cuban missile crisis had United gone down to three home defeats in succession, but that was the bleak prospect facing Moyes here.
And it meant there was an air of nervousness as Shakhtar’s busy, Brazilian-heavy midfield pulled the strings in an open first half.
United center backs Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were often left exposed as Shakhtar’s playmakers, particularly Alex Teixeira, scythed their way through the home side. Teixeira wasted two great chances in the first half, first shooting just wide after a through-ball by Taison and then firing at David de Gea, while Fred miscued at the end of another incisive Shakhtar break. Those misses proved to be costly
United, featuring striker Wayne Rooney on his return from a domestic ban, also had its moments early on with Adnan Januzaj denied point blank by goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov and Ashley Young running clean through, only to lob an effort wide with the goal at his mercy.
But there was an openness and fragility to United that must have been a worry for Moyes, especially in central midfield where the 40-year-old Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones – a center back playing out of position – were often overrun. Giggs was hauled off midway through the second half whereas Jones gradually improved, eventually getting his goal.
Yaroslav Rakitskiy skewed wide a golden chance for Shakhtar after a corner in the 47th, and the importance of that miss was emphasized by Leverkusen going ahead in Spain moments later.
That meant Shakhtar needed to win to advance but their problem was that United was slowly improving – helping revive a previously flat atmosphere – and Moyes’ introduction of the fit-again Robin van Persie gave the hosts more belief.
And it was the Dutchman’s corner that swung through a mass of bodies, struck the side of Rakitskiy and fell invitingly for Jones, who lashed home low into the center of the goal from 10 yards.
That sucked the life out of Shakhtar, which failed to create a clear-cut chance in the final quarter as the game petered out. However unconvincing, United brought an end to its sorry run of home defeats, something Moyes will look to feed on when the team returns to Premier League action this weekend.