David Moyes arrives in Donetsk, struggling to get locals up for Manchester United's European quest
The last time Manchester United arrived in Ukraine they were on the back of a seven-match unbeaten run and on the road to lifting both League and Premier League trophies. "This is a team that is coming together," Sir Alex Ferguson said, proclaiming on the eve of that match six years ago that his Wayne Rooney-Carlos Tevez combination would take on the world. Within 24 hours they had demolished Dynamo Kiev 4-2 and swung out of town.
The contrast was striking when Ferguson's successor stepped through the chill air of this mining town towards the press conference seat, which he occupied for a mere 11 and a half minutes. There was a little more positivity than we have had in the past two weeks.
"Of course we'll try to win the Champions League," Moyes said, four days after saying United are five or six world-class players light to win it. "That's part of the job at Manchester United. That's something I'll try to make happen." But he was subdued, solemn and the prospect of facing the world for another dissection of United's worst start to a campaign since 1989 was made no easier by his Ukrainian translator's struggle to keep up. This resulted in the mildly excruciating spectacle of Moyes having to repeat for the man the question, "What have you learnt about yourself?" and proceed to explain his answer: "I've been in situations similar to this at Everton and Preston North End. You do the right things and I haven't changed," Moyes said. "The results will come. There's no doubt about that."
The local journalists in far-flung places like this have loved trying out Sir Alex Ferguson on all kinds of questions in recent years. It was like travelling with Barack Obama at times and Ferguson, basking in the cosmopolitan feel of it all, would chide the British press corps for failing to let them get a word in edgeways. The Ukrainians did not muster a single question for Moyes, who is venturing on to the Continent for the first time in the Champions League proper. They simply seemed struck dumb by the novelty of the famous Manchester United being something less than a powerhouse.
Rio Ferdinand appears to be the casualty of United's domestic unravelling. Moyes revealed he was one of two members of the side undone by West Bromwich Albion at the weekend to have been omitted from the squad to face the dynamic Ukrainian champions, who have won their country's double for the past two years.
Ferdinand, who trained this morning after a poor performance against West Bromwich, did not travel. The omission of Anderson, who was also dreadful on Saturday, did not even warrant an explanation from Moyes, who said that the 34-year-old Ferdinand was carrying a "slight" groin problem. "It's nothing serious. I was never bringing Rio anyway," he said.
The Shakhtar manager is the 68-year-old Romanian Mircea Lucescu, who is 108 Champions League ties to the good – one of them against Ferguson, whose United players defeated his own Internazionale team in the competition's quarter-final 14 years ago. Lucescu observed that Moyes must be allowed to breathe. "He needs time to share ideas with the players," he declared, noting that Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid and Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City were hardly having a picnic. But Lucescu broke into English to reinforce his belief that making multiple changes of players between games might be damaging Moyes. "I think turnover can cause a lot of problems sometimes," he said.
Lucescu rued the loss of Willian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Fernandino to Anzhi,Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City in the past 18 months. "It is one thing to lose one player and another to lose a group of players. We have lost a group of players."
It has been Donetsk's worst start to a campaign in five years but there are no genuine symmetries with United. The Ukrainians' fast, dynamic players are the kind who can damage such static visitors as these.
Moyes, who is likely to start with Robin van Persie, ready to return after a thigh injury, dismissed Lucescu's talk about rotation. "It never caused Sir Alex Ferguson any problems," he said. "Manchester United have always had a big squad of players and it's my job to use them and find out what is suitable. I'm getting to know them much better."
United's aura in Europe was something to draw succour from, he agreed. "Everybody is interested in them. They're a talking point throughout the world." The tide may turn. But these are punishing times for Moyes and on this night his heart just was not in it.
TV Sky Sports 4 (h/l: 10pm, SS2)
Referee P Kralovec (Cz Rep)
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