When is a technically “meaningless” game something far less than meaningless? When mighty Manchester United is attempting to deliver itself from the unthinkable: losing three in a row at home.
To the rescue has come a less likely figure in Phil Jones, who has finally turned the valve, releasing the enormous pressure that was continuing to build around an atypically wandering season at Manchester United. His 67th minute goal was the difference as Manchester United rediscovered something to smile about, rolling out a ? win Tuesday over Shakhtar Donetsk in Champions League.
So United finish first in its group, a big benefit to a club that now gets to dodge the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona and perhaps some other biggies in the next round of tournament play, the first knockout round. But there was surely more afoot at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
This game had big impact around the storied club far beyond its effect on the lucrative competition. In fact, there was almost zero potential influence on the Champions League for David Moyes’ staggering lot. But having lost twice in the past week at Old Trafford, United and Moyes were craving something positive, and most desperate to dodge a third loss at home in a matter of days.
Fred, Luiz Adriano and Alex Teixeira – Shakhtar has quite a collection of talented, young Brazilians – zipped comfortably around a wobbly United back line, creating several good chances. One moment told the story of the first half: Aging center back Rio Ferdinand was stripped of the ball, then provided futile chase as a quick sequence ended with Fred flubbing what should have been 1-0 lead for the visitors.
Playing through Shinji Kagawa – stationed centrally for United in his favored, but rarely seen role – Manchester United managed to create a bit here and there before the break. The best came in the 37th minute when Ashley Young broke in and had every opportunity to chip over a goalkeeper ranging out of position. Rather, he pushed his looping little volley wide past the far post.
A few minutes later, Kagawa arranged beautifully for Wayne Rooney, but the England international couldn’t manage to uncork from 15 yards.
Jones finally broke through when he confidently cleaned up a corner kick scramble with a technical volley from about 15 yards.
Shakhtar applied pressure sporadically, but the output from Moyes’ men was greatly improved after those first 30 minutes, and the lift around Old Trafford from Jones’ goal was somewhat palpable.
Shakhtar finished third in the group and will move into Europa League when the pair of continental tournaments resume in February.
Shakhtar: Pyatov, Srna, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Shevchuk, Fred, Stepanenko, Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira, Taison, Luiz Adriano.
Manchester United: De Gea, Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Evans, Buttner, Jones, Giggs, Young, Kagawa, Januzaj, Rooney.