Jim White

Moyes channels Everton spirit to give United European hope

Jim White

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That was not the result the anti-Moyes movement was looking for.

The fans who paid for that aeroplane on Saturday will be sore this morning that the Wrong One so emphatically defied expectation.

Whether it is enough to maintain him in position to oversee a summer’s spending, remains to be seen. But for now, it is only fair to note that he confounded his critics last night.

Most observers – certainly this one – were expecting Manchester United to be slaughtered. I had them down for a 7-1 aggregate guffing.

Instead, against the finest club side in the world, they played with a spirit and determination not often evident this season to ensure they go into the second leg with a fighting chance of progressing.

And no-one thought that was going to happen.


Sure, it may not have been the most elevated technical performance, more a hit-and-hope clinging on than a tiki-taka masterpiece. But this was Bayern Munich they were facing, a side which eviscerated Barcelona in last season’s semi-final, a side so good they have already popped the German domestic title into their trophy cabinet.

Sure, it may not have been in the traditions of Manchester United to approach a game in such a cowed manner. But nobody can argue with a display of such defensive discipline they restricted the most devastating attack in the competition to just one goal.

Bayern may have enjoyed 70 per cent of the possession, but the goals were split 50-50. And that is the only statistic that matters.

Besides, the sight of Nemanja Vidic throwing his body on the line would have stirred the blood of the most sceptical. That really was the spirit.

At the end of ninety minutes as intense as any he could have experienced, only the stoniest of hearts could have baulked at the sight of David Moyes for once not looking swamped by the occasion. To see him shake hands with Pep Guardiola at the conclusion of the game on an equal footing was a really unexpected sight.

For a moment – a brief moment, admittedly, lasting the seven minutes between Vidic’s magnificent opener up to the point of Bastien Schweinsteiger’s equaliser – he almost looked the part.

If he could explain to Marouane Fellaini before the second leg that prioritising defending does not mean you have to give the ball away every time you have possession, then who knows what might happen.

But then, in many ways, last night was one which played to Moyes’s strength. For once he could legitimately set up a Manchester United team as underdogs, to spoil and harry, lining up with two deep-lying defensive banks and a pacey lone striker chasing the hoofed out ball.

In the Premier League he has struggled this season because United tradition expects more than he is conditioned to deliver. Eleven years working in the confined restraints of Goodison taught him the value of doing the simple things well, of concentration and fighting for every ball.

Against Liverpool and Manchester City at home this season his side has utterly failed to produce anything remotely resembling a United performance partly because its manager does not know how to prepare a team for enriching football. But when circumstance demands a backs-to-the-wall scrap, with no flourish or fancy, then he is in his element. He can do that all right.

In truth, however much it might hurt United loyalists to see their expectation so suddenly lowered from recent glories, Bayern are now so superior that setting his team up like Everton was the only way Moyes was going to get anything out of last night. And it worked.

No-one expected him to be still in this tie. Even the bookies – who rarely call the odds wrong – had United down as 6-1 to win, the longest odds ever quoted on a United home performance.

But Moyes’s men are still in it, just a breakaway goal from making it to the semi-final.

In fact, had Danny Welbeck not over-elaborated when put through by a sumptuous pass by Wayne Rooney just before half time, they could have been going to Bavaria next week on the back of a victory. And then what would those of us who suspect Moyes might not be the man for the job be saying?

But at least United did not crumble to Bavaria superiority after Welbeck’s fluffing of the main chance. Unlike Arsenal, who did precisely that after Mesut Ozil scuffed his penalty at the Emirates.

They are still in there, if his tetchy after-match performance at the press conference is indicative, getting under Pep Guardiola’s skin. Moyes can take them to the Allianz finally with evidence that his side can play in the style he wants them to: tough to beat and with an ability on the break to worry any defence.

And remember, while it may not fulfil the tactical fantasies of the United faithful, that has been enough in the past to win this very trophy for Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Roberto di Matteo.

In many ways, the arc of Moyes’s season has been the opposite of how many of us expected it to work out for him. It was assumed he would have sufficient know-how to pass muster in the Premier League, but, lacking in experience, he would struggle in Europe.

But it has been in the Champions League (barring the away performance at Olympiacos) that he has thrived, while it has been domestically where he has gone through such trauma.

Sure, last night may not have been pretty. And granted, it may not in the final analysis be sufficient to see his team through. But it gave a hint that – despite every available piece of evidence to the contrary – there may still be hope for David Moyes this season.

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