Manchester United 1-0 Shakhtar Donetsk
Ricky Cockcroft, my old, sad-sack, City-supporting mate since 1969, was all set for a rip-snorting party after this match followed by a day off work. The very idea of it: With fifty-one years having passed since United last experienced three consecutive defeats at Old Trafford on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis–even considering just how Manchester City, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers could have all left the Theater of Dreams victorious is unthinkable to me. Anyway–sigh!–even though his Abu Dhabian sky-blue mercenaries won in Munich and he called in sick as a dog anyway–the Red Devils somehow fashioned a win.
“You lot are finished, anyway,” he said. “It’s over. You lot are done.”
Nothing warms the wee cockles of my still-beating heart than deeply embittered City, Liverpool and Arsenal fans predicting, beyond, you know, our imminent temporary demise, that it’s over forever! Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been involved in a fair bit of binge, cringe and vomit of my own of late; but, as I say, having become a fan in 1957, I’ven repeatedly paid my fare at the turnstile and loved my red devils through thick and thin. This too shall pass, and whether it’s under the spiritual aegis of David Moyes or not, everything will ultimately be all right.
First things first, however, and this win over the Ukrainian champions, Shakhtar Donetsk, gives David Moyes a few hours breathing room before his feet are put in the fire again against Aston Villa on Sunday…
The strike that gave United their first victory of December was a moment of will-fuelled, half-volleyed inspiration from our dough-faced warrior Phil Jones in the 67th-minute. With our awesome crew of strikers undergoing a temporary collective crisis of form and confidence, just who gets it done hardly matters, provided the fatal deed gets done.
Although the seven point gap that lies between United and City for fourth place looms large in the Premier League table of the moment, we can only work our way back one match at a time. A win over the Ukrainian champions meant we did ourselves a huge favor, however, because now we will not have to play against any powerhouse favorites in the next round.
“We had a disappointing five days here at Old Trafford,” Moyes mused before kick-off, blinking repeatedly from the attention of photographers. It all gave me a certain daydreaming of a certain Dutch boy in red-white-&-black painted wooden clogs, standing there awkwardly looking at the press corps, who are all staring at his finger trapped inside a crack inside a dyke wall which no one acknowledges. “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 that we need to play better but on several occasions we have lacked a little bit of good fortune.”
Nice speech, ey? As with Dunkirk, the best British way is to act like nothing’s wrong and tap stout fellows like Phil Jones on the shoulder and tell them. “You’re it, bay-ba!”
Moyes, who Rio Ferdinand does himself no favors in publicly criticizing, picked his line-up just over an hour before kick-off. Robin van Persie was left on the bench, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Marouane Fellaini, and the long crocked Michael Carrick, who has an achilles injury, were all left out. With Januzaj, Kagawa, Young, Giggs and Rafael stroking the ball around there was reason for confidence. Phil Jones, partnering Ryan Giggs in central midfield, had an early go at goal, but Shakhtar’s goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov found it easy to collect.
That would be more or less the last attack United managed to mount in the first-half. Incapable of holding the ball and plagued by an inability to make a successful pass, United once again fell into a state of collective apathy. Shakhtar’s high-quality Brazilian core midfield led by Taison, Teixeira, Fred and the ever-dangerous Douglas, repeatedly ran United’s wobbly defense ragged, particularly right-back Rafael Da Silva and a perpetually marooned Rio Ferdinand. Just how and why Shakhtar’s technically brilliant Brazilian contingent couldn’t put the ball in the net is not simple to explain, but Rafael, Evans and De Gea were a bulwark of determined fortitude, despite the fact that the twinkle-toed, fleet-footed Teixeira managed to give the Brazilian right-back a torrid time. Perhaps it was because there were so many club and national scouts in the crowd watching the four virtuosos who were later joined by the winger Bernard. Their dribbling runs and trickery earned and deserved much applause as United’s midfield and defense were repeatedly caught in flat-footed lapses. Luckily they were unable to conjure up that final blow in much the same way our own strikers have done of late.
Only Wayne Rooney managed to operate successfully, but he was repeatedly surrounded and double-marked by Shakhtar defenders. His sole highlight after drawing a foul was a 25-yard free-kick which hooked almost perfectly, but tumbled perhaps an inch too far left into the side-netting. Directly afterward, though, having picked up a loose ball from Andrey Pyatov’s goal-kick, Rio casually gave away the ball to Teixeira and shrugged ridiculously as the Brazilian dynamo took off. After turning Rafael around twice, Teixeira inexplicably decided not to go it alone and fired a sweet pass to a surprised Fred, whose wicked shot was blocked by Evans and De Gea.
Something way beyond sarcasm and rage was surely unleashed on the team by Moyes on the team at half-time, though. Once back on the field, United actually began ratcheting up the tempo. First, Wayne Rooney then Young (twice) had chances but these only came close. One was almost wonderful, as Ashley Young took a leaf out of Douglas’ book, dispossessing Darijo Srna, shimmying this way and that before streaking past an advancing Pyatov, but then unfathomably firing his gentle lob over the goalie but wide of the goal. Young’s other miss, when he was left completely alone at the edge of the box and allowed to blast the ball a foot wide of an empty net was just one more nail in the coffin of his disappointing career in a United kit.
Then both Kagawa and Rooney blasted over Pyatov at more or less pointblank range and hearts began to sink. Moyes did get it right then, however. Van Persie and Cleverley were more than adequate replacements for the ineffective Young and Giggs in the 63rd minute. Van Persie is still notably wrapped up around the right thigh and a little hindered in his usual mode of sudden lateral sprinting. Nevertheless, his left foot is always a lethal weapon. Having only been on the pitch for four minutes the Dutch striker instantaneously sewed panic in the Ukrainian champions’ box. after a desperate Srna clearance. Van Persie’s corner dipped before Pyatov could commit to diving into a melée to receive it. Jones charged in to meet it, moving sideways to avoid connecting with Stepanenko, his left shoulder out to break the fall, his big head tucked into his left shoulder, he threw himself to his left and fired a sweet right-footed half-volley into the net to kill the will of the Ukrainians for the final twenty minutes.
Moyes’s men finished their group campaign with an impressive 14 points and four wins from six matches. Yes. On paper, we still look very very daunting in Europe.
“You lot are s%i*,” Rickey emailed me. “You’re not going to win an egg cup!”