MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Manchester United midfielder Phil Jones grabbed the winner to ensure his already-qualified team finished top of Champions League Group A as they eliminated Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
England international Jones cracked home a low volley in the 67th minute to secure the victory for United, top of their group before kickoff but having lost their last two Premier League home matches, and ease the pressure on manager David Moyes.
Ukraine champions Shakhtar, who needed to match Bayer Leverkusen’s result at Real Sociedad to progress, finished third and go into the Europa League after the Bundesliga side held on for a 1-0 win in Spain that took them into the knockout phase.
Shakhtar’s Brazilian trio of Taison, Alex Teixeira and Luiz Adriano gave vulnerable United a torrid time early on, but Mircea Lucescu’s side could not convert any of their chances and they fell away after utility man Jones broke the deadlock.
Moyes said United, who finish with 14 points from their six group games, should still be viewed as a strong Champions League contender, but he was keen to add a proviso.
“I think we could be classed as one of the favorites, but we’ll have to improve if we’re to keep progressing in the Champions League,” he was quoted as saying on the BBC.
“We wanted to top the group and we have. The win helps us, it improves our form. We didn’t play well for 30 minutes and they had two or three opportunities, but in the second half it was much better.
“I was tough with them at halftime but we needed to be, we need to win games ... we weren’t close enough to them (in the first half). To be fair the players responded well.
“A club like Manchester United has to be trying to win the trophy, that’s their job. You have to get better as the tournament goes on. It’s a tough competition, a hard one but we will take it one game at a time.”
Moyes had taken responsibility for his side’s poor results in the past seven days, two 1-0 home Premier League defeats by Everton and Newcastle United that posed serious questions about his suitability to succeed Alex Ferguson.
The Scot began his repair job by making six changes from the side that lost to Newcastle, while opposite number Lucescu, mindful of Shakhtar’s need for a positive result, made a bold statement by picking Fred and Tomas Stepanenko in midfield as a platform for Taison, Teixeira and Adriano.
It was Teixeira and Taison in particular who put United’s defence, and notably Rio Ferdinand, under pressure in the first half.
In the 13th minute Taison drove towards goal and timed to perfection a through ball for Teixeira, who advanced on David de Gea although, with only the keeper to beat, he sidefooted inches wide.
Just past the half-hour Taison robbed a ponderous Ferdinand but, after the ball rolled invitingly for Fred on the edge of the area, the midfielder scuffed his shot.
United’s early attacking efforts were not without merit, as 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj, making his European debut, turned and hit a half-volley straight at Andriy Pyatov, and striker Wayne Rooney bent a free kick into the side netting.
Yet the home side’s best chances of the first period fell to Ashley Young, a player lacking in confidence and whose United career might not extend much past the January transfer window.
After 37 minutes Young found himself one-on-one with Pyatov but could only steer a lob wide of the mark, and seven minutes later he sliced a left-foot shot wide after being played into space by Rooney.
Douglas Costa gave United a warning early in the second half, deceiving defender Alexander Buttner with a wonderful piece of skill on the byline, and from a corner moments later Yaroslav Rakitskiy’s low effort shaved De Gea’s post.
Then news came through from Spain that Leverkusen had taken the lead against Real Sociedad, and Shakhtar, perhaps too eager for a breakthrough of their own, relinquished control.
First Shinji Kagawa forced a save from Pyatov, before Rooney nearly caught the keeper off guard with an improvised chip from distance that glided just over the bar.
Robin van Persie replaced Young after 63 minutes and four minutes later United were ahead.
The Dutchman’s corner was not cleared by the visitors and the ball fell to Jones who, in one movement, swivelled and hit a crisp volley low past Pyatov’s left hand from 10 yards.
Writing by Stephen Wood in London; editing by Tony Goodson