Manchester United in crisis! Well, at least that’s the back page version of events after the past week in which David Moyes’ team has securing just one point from nine, in matches against Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Newcastle United. Indeed, while the results have shocked, United’s performance against the Geordies reached what supporters can only hope is a nadir on Saturday. This wasn’t defeat when victory could equally have come – Moyes’ side was comprehensively outplayed by the side which finished 16th last season.
Still, Europe has presented something of a cathartic break this season, where United has played, if not with freedom, then at least without the burden that has been attached to a poor domestic campaign. Five defeats in 15 games have come in the Premier League, but the Reds have comfortably qualified for the knock-out stages of the continent’s leading competition.
The Reds’ outstanding – and surprising – 5-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in Germany on matchday five has easily been the highlight of Moyes’ six months in charge. Further wins against Bayer and Real Sociedad at home have brought 11 points from five games. One more secures top spot in Group A and a potentially easier tie in the Round of 16.
It hasn’t always been easy though. United’s 1-0 win over Real at Old Trafford came with a tentative performance, while the return in Spain was overly cautious against an inexperience opponent. Yet, Moyes will take pride from qualifying so comfortably against opponents from Spain and Germany, albeit in a group that contains teams ranked 15th, 27th and 89th in UEFA’s coefficient.
The three point cushion in Group A gives Moyes the option of resting players, although further defeat at Old Trafford on Tuesday night will come not only at the cost of group leadership, but the manager’s credibility in an increasingly difficult season. One in which the responsibility for success, or failure, will eventually lie with Moyes.
“It’s important we give ourselves every chance of progressing even further in the Champions League by finishing top,” said Moyes on Friday.
“It won’t make it easier but it will give us a little bit of an advantage by having the second game at home. We will do everything we can to be top and, as well as that, we’re unbeaten in the group and want to stay unbeaten if we can make that happen.
“We’ve been inconsistent at times. We’ve played very well in some of the games in the Champions League, not so well in the Premier League games I couldn’t put my finger on why some games have looked any better than any of the others.
“We’d like to generally play better but we’d like to pass it better, we’d like to create more chances. We’d like to defend better when those moments arise.
“I take complete responsibility for the results. They’ve been good in the Champions League but they’ve not been good in the Premier League. I would like them to be much better – and I’ve got no doubt they will be.”
Moyes is likely to rotate after three tough domestic games, although Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie could both start. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs are all likely to sit the game out.
Meanwhile, Chris Smalling missed open training on Monday, although could still be fit, while Shinji Kagawa and Marouanne Fellaini are both available for selection. Michael Carrick remains on the sidelines with an achilles problem.
Kagawa missed Saturday’s defeat to Newcastle with what was later described as “over-eating,” while Fellaini has an ongoing wrist injury that has contributed to a woeful lack of form this season.
But it is to van Persie and Rooney that Moyes will look for goals – a commodity missing in two thoroughly depressing defeats this week. Still, with the pair having scored 20 between them in all competitions the £55 million forward line should have enough firepower to take United through, top of Group A.
“What I enjoy most is the interaction together, that we both want to play together,” van Persie told UEFA.com.
“We both realise that we are better off playing together, because we are stronger when we are playing together, as a partnership. You have to have a certain partnership when you’re playing with the number 9 and number 10, the main striker and the second striker. It’s very important that you want to work together.
“With a player of Wayne’s calibre, we can go from strength to strength, and we can become better. It is important that this partnership is growing and becoming even stronger.”
Meanwhile, Mircea Lucescu’s side arrives in Manchester seeking the win that will guarantee progression to the knockout stages. The other fixture in Group A pits Bayer against bottom-placed Sociedad in Spain where victory for the Germans will take them through unless Shaktar wins in Manchester.
The Ukranians arrive in solid domestic form, even if the 4-0 loss at Bayer on matchday three equalled the club’s heaviest ever defeat in European competition. The visitors have no need to rotate either, with the Ukranian league just beginning its winter break. Shaktar completed the 2013 schedule with a 1-0 win at Chornomorets Odesa last week. The champions lie top of the league by five points going into the break, but won’t play another domestic fixture until March.
Still, says Lucescu, the fixture in Manchester is a must-win game against an opponent that “has lost their spark”.
“For Manchester United it is a must-win match as they want to win so they can top the group and for our part we are going to play our best as it is important for us to progress as well,” said Lucescu.
“I watched both defeats, against Everton and Newcastle. When they were playing Everton it was David Moyes’ former team so they were playing with special enthusiasm and motivation, but when they played Newcastle it was like they had lost their spark a bit.”
That is, of course, an understatement given the dismal level of performance against Alan Pardew’s outfit. Still, European competition once again offers a respite, albeit a temporary one with United away at Aston Villa next week. The fixture in Birmingham is one of four Premier League matches before the turn of the year.
The Reds also face winnable fixtures against West Ham United, Hull City, and Norwich City. Then, most pundits thought the same about home matches with Everton and Newcastle.
First, an opportunity to qualify top of Group A in the Champions League – and boost a demoralised squad’s confidence in the same breath.
Manchester United v Shaktar Donetsk, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 10 December 2013
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Jones, Buttner; Fellaini, Cleverley; Young, Rooney, Welbeck; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Vidić, Evra, Smalling, Ferdinand, Anderson, Kagawa, Nani, Valencia, Giggs, Zaha, Januzaj, Hernández
Shaktar (4-2-3-1): Pyatov; Srna, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Shevchuk,; Hübschman, Fernando; Costa, Teixeira, Bernard; Adriano. Subs from: Kanibolotskiy, Chygrynskiy, Ilson Pereira Dias, Stepanenko, Fred, Taison, Eduardo
United 0 Draw 1 Shaktar 0
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Assistant referees: Milovan Ristić, Dalibor Djurdjević
Additional assistant referees: Danilo Grujić, Miodrag Gogić