Manchester United’s second half performance against Fulham may have noticeably dropped from the blistering first period at the weekend, but there is still an inescapable sense of momentum surrounding David Moyes’ side. Four wins on the bounce – an unbeaten run now stretching to seven matches – leaves United hanging on to the Premier League leaders, and a win away from European qualification. In stark relief to the early weeks of Moyes’ regime, United traveled to Spain on Monday confident of achieving a positive result.
Indeed, three creditable performances in Europe have set the stage for qualification should Shakhtar Donetsk failed to beat Bayer Leverkusen in the other Group A match on Tuesday evening. By contrast, United remain eight points behind domestic pacesetters Arsenal, despite victory at Fulham on Saturday, albeit a gap that could be reduced next weekend.
Still, United’s sole away trip in Europe to date brought with it an approach that appeared to betray Moyes’ inexperience in the Champions League, in addition to a natural instinct towards caution. With opponents seemingly there for the taking, United handed the initiative to Shakhtar in Ukraine before a 76th minute Taison equaliser secured the hosts a point.
The approach points to an interesting test in Basque country: the more liberal attacking verve seen in west London, for 45 minutes at least, or a safety-first policy bent on securing a point. Either way, Moyes believes that his squad’s experience in European competition will see the Reds through to the Round of 16.
“We haven’t done anything differently. Whatever we’re doing in the Champions League we’re doing in the Premier League as well,” said Moyes, whose squad touched down in San Sebastián on Monday afternoon.
“The players are used to it, they’re experienced at this level. I think our experienced players have shown they’re used to the Champions League and that’s shown in the games. I hope that continues.
“I feel we’re playing better and getting some good results to go with it. I won’t take anything for granted. I have a lot of respect for Sociedad. We have to play well if we’re going to get those 10 points, which will get us over the line. We’ve got ourselves into a good position in the group and we have to try to maintain that.”
However, the Scot will be without a pair of key defenders for the match at Anoeta, with both Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans remaining in Manchester after suffering injuries at the weekend. Rio Ferdinand could come back into the heart of United’s defence, while Chris Smalling will start at right-back.
Meanwhile, Michael Carrick is likely to return to the side, with one of Marouanne Fellaini and Ryan Giggs competing for an additional spot in central midfield. Tom Cleverley misses out after picking up a knock against Fulham.
While central midfield remains a concern after Carrick’s laboured start to the new campaign, and Fellaini’s failure to impress, Moyes believes his side has found form after losing three times in the opening seven Premier League matches. Just in time it would seem, with league leaders Arsenal at Old Trafford next weekend.
Tuesday’s match could also bring a European debut for star youngster Adnan Januzaj, who escaped serious injury at the weekend despite Fulham right-back Sacha Riether’s apparently unprovoked stamp on the 18-year-old.
Januzaj sat out early matches against Shaktar and Leverkusen because of ineligibility, while the Kosovan-Belgian did not make it off the bench against La Real at Old Trafford.
“He’s definitely ready to play, he’s not got a problem,” said Moyes, who is seemingly prepared to experiment with the youngster in any of United’s forward positions this season.
“We’re trying to bring the boy along at the right pace if we can. He’s not tired and we’ve not seen any dips in form just now so I’m sure we’ll continue using him and he’ll definitely be in and around the squad.”
“In time, his best position may be number 10 but, while he’s so young, it’s easy to introduce him off the left or off the right. He’s that talented, he can play in several positions
“I want to keep the reins on him a little bit and keep him disciplined in what he does. The boy is working really well and whatever job we give him he’s a real talent. I don’t want to put too much expectation on the boy, which is why I’ll undoubtedly take him out of the team at times during the year. But he’s got something I’ve not seen for a long, long time.”
Meanwhile, Jagoba Arrasate’s Sociedad side must win to stand any chance of progressing in this season’s competition. Bottom of Group A without a point, La Real has suffered a difficult start to the campaign both home and in Europe. However, a thumping 5-0 victory over Osasuna at the weekend could mark the start of a revival for last season’s fourth-placed Spanish side.
“Our goal is to win to stay alive in the Champions League,” admits Arrasate.
“If we approach the game at our best we can beat Manchester United. We need to take the initiative to them and attack. We are more confident. On Tuesday we will see if the difference between the teams has closed.
“People have been waiting for this game a long time. Playing at Anoeta against this team will be very special for everyone.”
Indeed, the same could be said for Moyes if the Scot takes his team to the knock-out stages of the Champions League after just four rounds. After all, the former Everton manager has faced significant and often justified criticism this season, but qualification is a performance few could devalue.
Real Sociedad de Fútbol v Manchester United, Champions League, Anoeta, 7.45pm, 5 November 2013
Real (4-3-3): Bravo; C Martinez, I Martínez, Ansotegui, Angel; Prieto, Pardo, Zurutuza;Seferovic, Agirretxe, Griezmann. Subs from: Zubikarai, Gonzalez, de la Bella, Larrañaga, Urkola, Irizabal, Vela
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Vidic, Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández
Officials (all ITA)
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli
Assistant referees: Renato Faverani, Andrea Stefani
Additional assistant referees: Andrea De Marco, Paolo Valeri