Shakhtar Donetsk honoured their "pitman" heritage with a giant banner of a miner at the Donbass Arena but ultimately it was Manchester United who dug in for modest reward. It was a night of unashamed resistance from David Moyes's men and he appeared mildly irritated at the suggestion a club of United's standing could come to Donetsk with a point in mind.
"We didn't play for a draw, we played to win," he responded. The plan looked set to come to fruition when Danny Welbeck scored his third goal of the season, and sixth in total for club and country, and United protected their lead with composure until the 76th minute. Taison's emphatic equaliser for Shakhtar punctured the visiting mood, with United players departing heads bowed on the final whistle. But this was an encouraging result in any circumstances, never mind under the scrutiny that followed Saturday's home loss to West Bromwich Albion.
"There's a bit of disappointment that we didn't see the game out," the United manager said. "But Shakhtar had a lot of pressure in the second half. I don't think they really worried us but unfortunately in the end we gave away a goal. We had to be harder to play against than we have in recent games, and overall we were."
The point could prove crucial in the final reckoning in Group A. Shakhtar had won all three previous Champions League meetings at home to English opposition – Arsenal twice and Chelsea last season – and this presented arguably United's toughest assignment in the group stage. The visitors spent most of the second half encamped on their own penalty area but David de Gea was rarely stretched as he received far greater protection than in recent games. Moyes said: "The players were aware of how tough a game it was going to be and I thought we defended very well. I'm disappointed we didn't go on to win the game 1-0 but I also thought Shakhtar deserved a point."
United's preparations were not helped by another training-ground injury to Wayne Rooney. The champions' stand-out performer of the season suffered a shin injury on the eve of the game and hopes of including him among the substitutes were dashed when it swelled up before kick-off. "My plan wasn't to use Wayne Rooney tonight," said Moyes. "He was going to be on the bench but he has not been able to make it. He should be fine for Saturday [at Sunderland]."
The visitors were compact and disciplined from the start, with a clear understanding of addressing the threat from the Ukrainian champions. Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley formed a central midfield trio that stuck diligently to the task of denying Shakhtar's Brazilian front four time or space. Welbeck and Antonio Valencia may have been the supporting cast for Van Persie on his first start in four matches but frequently performed as a pair of auxiliary full-backs as United defended in numbers.
Cleverley created the first opportunity of the game when he scooped a pass over Shakhtar's central defence for Van Persie. The Dutchman shifted to his right and unleashed a trademark shot with his left, only for the ball to rise over Andriy Pyatov's crossbar. Fellaini was guilty of wasting possession several times early on but his presence grew in the final third as United's balanced midfield began to impress. The £27.5m deadline-day signing from Everton was instrumental in the breakthrough and so, probably to Moyes's surprise, was good fortune.
United were awarded a throw-in after the ball went out of play off Valencia. From Rafael's throw, Fellaini eventually escaped on the right of the Shakhtar area, held off his marker and crossed low to the near post where Yaroslav Rakitskiy crucially lost his footing. With the central defender on his backside, Welbeck was left completely unmarked to steer Fellaini's delivery beyond Pyatov and into the far corner.
Moyes gave a clenched-fist salute on the corner of his technical area as the stunned Donbass Arena fell silent, save for the hardy United souls up in the gods.
The Ukrainians enjoyed the majority of possession without stretching De Gea until Taison's equaliser. Fellaini and Vidic went into the referee's book in rapid succession for fouls on Taison and Costa respectively, the captain's trip presenting his opposite number, Darijo Srna, with an inviting free-kick from 25 yards that he drove into the wall. Fellaini was withdrawn shortly afterwards, his yellow card and sloppy distribution presenting a potential problem that Moyes rightly stopped at source. The Belgium's replacement, Ryan Giggs, it should be noted, was applauded on to the field by the entire crowd as he overtook Raúl for the record number of Champions League appearances (qualifiers included).
Van Persie had a chance to double United's advantage only for Rakitskiy to intervene with a crucial block, and just how crucial became apparent minutes later when he helped to breach United's resistance. The central defender strode down the left and drilled a cross into the heart of the visitors' area. Vidic intercepted, but only as far as Taison who beat De Gea with an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net from 12 yards. Taison almost scored again with a deflected shot off Smalling with six minutes remaining but De Gea reacted superbly to tip over. It was a deserved reprieve.