We will calibrate how Manchester United measure up to the best in Europe soon enough and though the quality of their football here suggested that may be a sobering experience, they at least staved off a deepening sense of calamity by securing the win they needed.
David Moyes’ side were helped along the way by an opposition equipped with the only known Brazilians who are not aware where the goal is. They could have put the game to bed for the Ukrainians before half-time.
But they didn’t – a little of the luck Moyes says has deserted his United side, perhaps – and Phil Jones did, ending a 310-minute drought of United goals here.
The night’s football narrative across the continent provided another sense that Manchester City, with their win in Munich, are getting away from United and nobody will be shuddering at the current prospect of stepping into the Theatre of Dreams.
The visiting side had an embarrassing quantity of possession during a first half which was fairly bleak. But Moyes has a building block, the right to say his side have performed better in Europe this autumn than they did this time last year and – having avoided a February date with Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich –perhaps a sense that all is not lost with his midfield inheritance.
For an individual with such designs on being a United centre-half, Jones takes up some very advanced positions and it is no coincidence that he is the only United midfielder to have scored this season. This was his second goal of the campaign, raising the hope that a partnership with Michael Carrick might nurture the recovery needed to help them build.
“I think we had to show some more desire tonight and have a bit more belief in our performance, and we did that eventually,” Jones reflected. “At half-time the manager just told us to pass the ball better. We know we’ve had a disappointing couple of weeks and we hope that we can kick on from this now.”
The atmosphere was heavy and brooding, and the occasional exhortations of the team to “play like Fergie’s boys” seemed forced. These promptings came from supporters whose hearts tell them to find loyalty with Moyes while their heads wonder where the new revolution is going to come from.
There were changes – six of them from the team that lost so badly to Newcastle United on Saturday – and a Champions League debutant, Adnan Januzaj, who looks incredibly insulated from the troubled transition which is taking place around him.
He provided United’s first-half moment of divinity, collecting a pass from Shinji Kagawa which he marshalled with his chest and left foot before spinning around to use the same boot to deliver a shot that keeper Andriy Pyatov managed to box away. It was at least a fleeting reminder of why they call this place the Theatre of Dreams.
Fleeting, because United laboured heavily through the first period. They squandered possession terribly at times. Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs, who was unable to find the majesty he had delivered against Bayer Leverkusen, were prime offenders and for a 10-minute spell United were being besieged.
Douglas Costa, who came so close to becoming a United player that he was their guest at a Bolton game a few years back, had the swagger to roll the ball forward under his studs and shoot at David de Gea in the United goal.
The Brazilian Taison, who was a handful in Ukraine, embarrassed Ferdinand by pinching possession and crossing for his compatriot Fred, who unfathomably passed the ball at De Gea after running on to it unmarked in the area: a very big let-off.
United looked congested, with Januzaj running into Kagawa’s territory behind Wayne Rooney as he did much of his work inside, but the two prime opportunities which could have broken the dam of anxiety during the first period were squandered in a way which makes you wonder how the profligate one, Ashley Young, can resurrect his United career.
He did well to nick a ball Giggs laid up for him beyond Darijo Srna eight minutes before the break but his attempt to lift it over the advancing Pyatov took it wide of the right post. When Rooney then played him into the same territory, Young sliced his shot wide from inside the penalty area with a clear view of goal.
Moyes reached down from his seat and slapped his knee in frustration, wondering who could find him some salvation from all this. It was a night when Young needed a performance almost as badly as the manager, who had not started with him since a League Cup tie in late October. It looked like the end.
United did up their game after the break. Rooney, hungry though not menacing across the course of the night, executed a clipped effort from the edge of the area which sailed inches over the bar.
However, Moyes’ need of energy superseded his hopes of preserving supplies for Aston Villa on Sunday. Robin van Persie and Tom Cleverley were introduced just before the hour-mark and the pair introduced an immediate intensity.
Then Jones struck, waiting near the penalty spot for the inswinging corner which the Ukrainian defence missed, allowing him to spin into a well-executed volley to break a little of the tension.
At that point there was an involuntary rendition of “Stand up for the champions” – loudly and universally observed and sung in the memory, perhaps, of the recent days when their side looked a rather different proposition to this.
Man of the match Jones.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee M Mazic (Serbia).
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