There was a smirk or two on Tuesday evening when David Moyes cited his time at Preston North End among the body of work which demonstrated how he could dig a way out of the dark tunnel he seems to be stumbling through, in these difficult early days at Manchester United. The sarcastic riposte being that the only remote relevance of Deepdale to the Old Trafford story was that the five-game proving ground it offered David Beckham before he returned to his natural domain.
But the new manager did indeed return to some of the proletarian basics. You might say that this was a quintessential Moyesian performance: full of the work ethic and spirit which we have come to expect from his teams. And lest that sound like a statement which damns the new manager with faint praise, it should also be said that this was a display far more reflective of England’s champions than the dismal performances United delivered on the continent in either Braga, Cluj or Galatasaray last season.
That United should have led for nearly an hour and not walked away with a win created an unmistakeable sense of dejection as the players trooped from the field, but it was the first point an English side has taken from here in a Champions League visit. The huge image of a miner lifted over the supporters of this coal city before the match was a metaphor for what Moyes’ players delivered.
Nemanja Vidic was foremost among them, though Moyes too seemed to play every pass. There have been times during these wretched last few weeks when he has retired to his dug-out seat, seemingly bereft of ideas. On the touchline, he seemed to be living and breathing the task in hand.
It never rains but it pours in football and to go with the dismal, sodden night was Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to reopen a wound which has hardly been closed, by reiterating his claim that Wayne Rooney asked to leave this summer and calling out his agent, Paul Stretford, as a destablising influence.
Moyes must be wondering whether the notion of unleashing United’s one world-class component – the Rooney/Robin van Persie strike force – will ever be realised after the Englisman’s cracked shin sustained in Tuesday’s training session kept him out. It is his fourth injury of the season.
Amid Ferguson’s latest management manual material, delivered from the Charlie Rose interview chair recently occupied by Basher al-Assad was the suggestion that a manager must “trust in what he has” though Moyes, still uncertain, made another nine changes. The five midfielders reflected how desperately porous and open those central areas have been.
But the fortitude that Moyes wanted was delivered in abundance when United went to work. Marouane Fellaini was the kind of big impediment Moyes has promised he will be, Tom Cleverley neat and resolute and both Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia providing the kind of defensive reinforcements that have been missing.
There were certainly occasional sticky moments against the rapier counter-attack of the home side, who sat deep. Douglas Costa versus Chris Smalling, unexpectedly preferred to Phil Jones for Rio Ferdinand’s place, did not always look a match up made in Manchester heaven. The Englishman’s pat on the back for David de Gea telegraphed his relief when he misjudged one high ball with Luiz Adriano lurking. Tom Cleverley escaped conceding a penalty for a treacherously risky challenge on Alex Teixieira and was lucky to do so.
But United’s precision counter-attacking delivered them a good early chance, when Van Persie span onto an intelligent, levered Cleverley pass and shot narrowly wide, and then a goal to take a little of this recent angst away. Fellaini’s strength helped him hold off Tomas Hübschman down the right hand side and square for Welbeck to prod in his third goal of the season.
Yaroslav Rakitskiy contributed handsomely to Welbeck’s goal with a dreadfully hashed clearance. But the finish also attested to the possibility that the 22-year-old is finding the flow of goals which have been lacking. That was his sixth of the season if you include his three goals for England so far, taking him one ahead of last season’s too modest tally.
The Ukrainian side were a disappointment overall. But the two United bookings inside the first quarter hour of the second half – Vidic and Fellaini – reflected renewed Ukrainian urgency after the break. Fellaini, leading with the arms which often get him into trouble, was quickly substituted for his own good.
Van Persie collected another rare chance, spinning around a low cross from Rafael to find a shot which Rakitskiy made a better hash of and blocked. But for once, on 73 minutes, United found a run through their midfield they could not stem. Rakitskiy provided it, atoning for his earlier error to drill a hard ball from the left which Vidic could only clear straight into the path of Taison, who thumped it past de Gea to equalise.
There were some desperate minutes before the end. Taison’s shot from the acute angle was touched athletically over the bar by De Gea as the cauldron that Shakhtar manager Mircea Lucescu had promised materialised.
But United held on. Four points from the double-header to follow against Real Socieded may be enough after the Spaniards’ defeat at Bayer Leverkusen. The group’s toughest match on paper has been negotiated. They are back to basics. More extravagant ideas can wait for a brighter day.
Man of the match Vidic.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee P Kralovec (Cz Rep).