There is just a modicum of bittersweet irony in David Moyes tough start to life as new Manchester United manager. While the Reds have slipped eight points leaders Arsenal in the Premier League title race, Moyes side has secured four points from two games in Europe, with the home tie against Real Sociedad on Wednesday proffering an opportunity to take a significant step towards the knock out stage.
By contrast Moyes predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, conquered domestic opposition long before making any significant impact on the Champions League, although there was, of course, 1991’s UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Barcelona.
Yet, for years Ferguson’s United side struggled not only with the superior quality at European level, but a tactical approach that all too often seemed naive. By 1999, when United secured the Champions League in the most dramatic fashion, Ferguson’s team had grown significantly in stature, although the Scot’s approach was still at its most bombastically attacking.
In the years that followed Sir Alex’ team became ever more conservative. The Scot’s side was once described by then Roma manager Luciano Spalletti as “even more Italian than we are” after the Reds shut out the Italian side with an ultra-negative approach in Rome.
It is a pattern Moyes has taken on with gusto – one that comes naturally to the former Everton manager, but perhaps also the only approach that could take United to an unlikely European glory. After all, few pundits or supporters believe Moyes side capable of winning Europe’s premier competition.
Still, four points from two games leaves United in a strong position to qualify should the Reds take all three points on Wednesday night.
“It could have gone a little better if we’d taken all three points in Shakhtar,” said Moyes on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t a bad point, though, and we’ll do everything we can to keep winning games. It’s a great competition and we want to progress. At home it’s important to win your home games and we’ll try to do that against Sociedad.
“We’ve had periods of good play but not continually through a game. It’s something we’re working on. We’re trying to improve all the time. There have been moments of play which have been excellent and a couple of inches one way or another we may have scored some more goals. We have to hope that turns for us. But we also have to keep working hard to make sure it does.”
United’s cautious outlook in Donetsk on matchday two is likely to be repeated in each of the Reds’ away European fixtures this season, although many will point to Moyes’ substitution of Wayne Rooney for Chris Smalling with minutes remaining against Southampton last weekend as evidence of the Scot’s generally negative mindset.
Still, Europe has already offered some relief away from the domestic campaign that is badly listing a quarter of the way through the season. Victory over Bayer Leverkusen in September is one of only two games this season where Moyes’ side has run out comfortable victors – the other being an opening day 4-1 victory over Swansea City.
Moyes will at least be able to call on youthful star Adnan Januzaj, who did not qualify for United’s ‘B’ list of homegrown players until mid-October. The Kosovan-Belgian forward sat out United’s matches against Shaktar and Leverkusen, but could start on Wednesday after being one of the few United players to impress against Southampton at the weekend.
It comes to something when a club of United’s stature is reliant on an 18-year-old rookie for its sole creative spark.
Moyes has key decisions to make in both central midfield and the back four where the Reds have struggled to perform this season. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have each struggled at times this season, with age an fitness an issue, while Southampton’s ability to circumvent United’s midfield at the weekend brutally exposed United’s most significant achilles heal.
“There are one or two knocks and niggles, which most teams have,” said Moyes on Tuesday.
“Vida and Rio are making good progress. Danny Welbeck has a little bit of an injury from the Southampton game so we’ll have to see how he is. Tom Cleverley isn’t as bad as we thought. They both have a chance.
“Januzaj is available. He’s an exciting young player and he’s making good progress all the time. He’s someone who, I’m sure, will play a big part in the future of Manchester United. He’s an exceptional talent.”
Meanwhile, Sociedad arrive in Manchester with little form of note. The Basque side qualified for the Champions League with a fine attacking record in La Liga last season, and a superb victory over Olympique Lyonnais in the qualifying round. However, Jagoba Arrastate’s side is still searching for a first point in Group A after defeats by Shakhtar and Leverkusen. La Real will surely need something out of the visit to Manchester if there is to be any hope of progress in the club’s first Champions League campaign in more than a decade.
In captain Xabi Prieto, former Arsenal front man Carlos Vela, and French winger Antoine Griezmann, Sociedad certainly hold the firepower to trouble United at Old Trafford. Yet, the San Sebastián-based side lies ninth in La Lida following three defeats in the club’s opening nine domestic fixtures this season.
“I watched them a lot last year and was really impressed by how well they’ve done,” said Moyes.
“The loss of one or two players has made it harder for them this year and maybe the expectations have been much bigger. Sociedad are here because they finished in the top four in Spain, which is a great achievement. We have great respect for them for that.
“The games I’ve watched I’ve been impressed. They change their style – sometimes with one defensive midfielder, sometimes with two. They had a good result at Valencia on Saturday night and we have to be mindful of what they can do.
“Old Trafford is a big place to come and play football but it’s also an enjoyable place to play football. We hope they don’t enjoy it too much.”
Indeed, United has won only one of their last six fixtures against Liga visitors at Old Trafford – the 1-0 Champions League semi-final success over Barcelona six years ago. The Reds have lost the last two home games against Spanish opposition – 2-1 to Real Madrid in last season’s first knockout stage, and 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League two year’s ago.
It is a pattern that Moyes can ill afford to repeat given United’s poor domestic form. And an opportunity, once again, to break out of the Premier League gloom that is slowly gathering over the Scot’s reign.
Manchester United v Real Sociedad, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 23 October 2013
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Januzaj, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Evans, Smalling, Jones, Valencia, Anderson, Young, Nani, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández
Real (4-3-3): Claudio Bravo; Díez, Mikel Martinez, Íñigo Martínez, de la Bella; Bergara, Pardo, Prieto; Agirretxe, Seferovic, Griezmann. Subs from: Zubikarai, Ansotegui, Angel, Zurutuza, Castro, Ros, Vela
Officials (all NED)
Referee: Bas Nijhuis
Assistant referees: Rob van de Ven, Charles Schaap
Additional assistant referees: Serdar Gözübüyük, Ed Janssen
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