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Preview: United v Bayern Munich

March 31, 2014 Tags: , Matches 16 comments
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It is, in many respects, a game that David Moyes cannot lose. Drawn against the ever-improving European champions, some bookmakers have Moyes’ Manchester United at 6-1 to beat the Germans at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. There can be only a handful of occasions in the past 20 years when such long odds could be found on United securing a result at home.

Yet, this is a reflection of the campaign to date. Moyes’ side has lost 13 times in all competitions this season; that’s as many games as Bayern coach Pep Guardiola has lost in four years. Seven of those defeats – six in the Premier League – have come at Old Trafford; more than the previous three campaigns combined.

Meanwhile, Bayern have failed to win on just seven occasions all season, being held to five draws and two losses. Or to put it another way, while United has retrenched under Moyes’ stewardship this season, Bayern has flourished under Guardiola’s management, with the Spanish coach securing an 84 per cent win rate this season.

Four years on from the last meeting between these sides – and Arjen Robben’s outstanding volleyed goal – Bayern is a superior outfit and United a shadow of the former team.

So much for all the talk of finding a path to match Barcelona after those dual Champions League final defeats to Guardiola’s Catalans in 2009 and 2011. Barça has been usurped as the continent’s best, of course, but United has not reached the same level again. On the current path, it may be years before the Reds feature in another continental final.

Still, Moyes has talked a bullish game this week; victory over Aston Villa filling the Scot full of more confidence than might be understandable after a dismal campaign. In Moyes’ predicament he’ll take the highs when they’re on offer.

Then there’s United’s form in Europe this season, which has seen the Reds lose just the once in the Champions League to date – the embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in Athens.

“It’s been a very good competition for us so far in my short time here, and now we’ve got the ultimate test in Bayern Munich,” said Moyes on Monday.

“I think the pressure is equally balanced because we want to win the game as much as they do. We go into the game knowing, on our day, we are as good a side as any. We have to show it more often but I have got great belief in the players. I get the feeling all the players want to play. In training, their attitude suggests they all want to play in the big games and this is a big game.”

***

Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014Still, Moyes is without key players for the 13th meeting between these two European giants. Robin van Persie could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, Juan Mata is cup tied in Europe, and Patrice Evra is suspended for the first leg in Manchester.

Rafael da Silva faces a late fitness test after coming off at half-time against Villa on Saturday. Ominously the Brazilian missed training on Monday.

However, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans both took part in a light session, although neither is likely to be match fit. The Irishman hasn’t played since early February, while Smalling has been in, but mostly out of the side in recent weeks.

With the rash of defensive absences Dutchman Alexander Büttner could start at left-back, while Jones will move to the right if Rafael proves unfit. It could mean a recall for Rio Ferdinand, or another appearance for Michael Carrick in the back four.

Further forward Moyes has a big call to make replacing Mata, with Kagawa pressing for a starting role after impressing against the Brummies, while Adnan Januzaj has been under-used in recent matches.

***

However, with Champions League qualification unlikely next season, Moyes’ priority remains Europe where a respectable result over two legs could secure the Scot’s job come the season’s dénouement. Matching Bayern man-for-man in a 4-2-3-1 system seems atypical to Moyes’ thinking, pushing fit-again Antonio Valencia, alongside Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs, into the frame for Tuesday’s match.

“It’s an obvious thing to say but it’s a two-legged tie and we have to make sure both games are important,” said Moyes.

“We’re mindful we want to go to Germany with every opportunity to go through so there’s always a bit of caution in the first leg. But we’d love to go to Germany with a win under our belts because it would set us up nicely.”

***

Meanwhile, the European champions arrive in Manchester without key midfielder Thiago Alcántara, who suffered a partial ligament tear in his right knee Bayern’s during 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim at the weekend. The Spaniard has become central to Guardiola’s plans this season following at £21 million move from Barcelona in the summer.

However, such are the riches on offer at Bayern that Guardiola may still field Bastian Schweinsteider, Toni Kroos, and Phillipe Lahm in central midfield at Old Trafford. Defender Dante is suspended so Spaniard Javier Martinez is likely to drop into the back four.

Such is Bayern’s strength that World Cup-bound German internationals Thomas Müller and Mario Götze may not make the Guardiola’s starting team.

Whatever the selection Bayern remain strong favourites to progress over two-legs, with Moyes likely to come under real pressure only if the newly re-crowned German champions run up a cricket score. That is, of course, possible given Bayern’s form this season, although Guardiola is keen to play down his side’s chances of running amok in Manchester.

“We are up against Manchester United and they are one of the most important clubs in the world, regardless of their current situation,” said Guardiola, who has been on the losing side just twice as Bayern coach.

“I know deep in my heart which team we are going to face. Maybe they have not had a good season in the Premier League, but in the Champions League they beat Leverkusen, they have won many important games. But when I see Rooney, when I see Ferdinand, when I see Vidić, when I see Ryan Giggs, when I see Chicharito, Welbeck, I know them all too well.”

***

The same can be said for Bayern’s likely starting team of course; each an outstanding and recognisable part of Europe’s finest side. Indeed, United’s chances may well be limited without injury and suspension disrupting Moyes’ back-four.

“Everyone knows it’s hard, that’s why I am saying we have to play with real quality,” said Rafael. “We have to do 200% or 300% to win.”

 

Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidić, Buttner; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Giggs, Welbeck; Rooney

Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba; Lahm, Schweinsteiger; Ribéry, Kroos, Robben; Mandžukić

Substitutes
United: Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Young, Fletcher, Januzaj, Kagawa, Nani, Hernandez

Bayern: Starke, Van Buyten, Badstuber, Shaqiri, Götze, Weiser, Højbjerg, Pizarro, Müller

Head to Head
United 2 Draw 4 Bayern 3

Match Officials (ESP)
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso, Juan Yuste
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Gómez, Carlos Del Cerro
Fourth official: Pau Cebrian Devis

Prediction
0-3

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Moyes’ Champions League questions

March 21, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments
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Robin van Persie’s timely hat-trick against Olympiacos on Wednesday has almost certainly prolonged David Moyes’ tenuous reign at Manchester United. Yet, Moyes’ departure may only be a matter of time, with the board reportedly wavering in its previously steadfast support for the Scot. United’s upcoming match against Manchester City at Old Trafford – and a Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich – might just be decisive in determining the under-fire manager’s future.

Contrary to most predictions Moyes’ side made it through the Champions League Round of 16 this week. The former Everton manager has persisted with ‘space based’ tactics throughout the campaign – designed largely to exploit width and zones and not passing into feet – and has found Europe easier to navigate than the Premier League. Continental teams tend to set up deeper and leave more room for United to exploit.

Personnel have been key to United’s success in Europe this season. The solidity provided by Antonio Valencia on the right has allowed United’s right-back, even Chris Smalling, to attack, while Michael Carrick’s holding role has enabled his midfield partner, and United’s left winger, to advance.

It is no coincidence that Ryan Giggs started both United’s 5-0 victory over Leverkusen and 3-0 win against Olympiakos. The 40-year-old provides the spark that engages United’s forwards to run amok in the attacking third.

But Giggs continued presence cannot be guaranteed. Including the final in Lisbon there are five matches to be played in the Champions League this season. Giggs, who turns 41 this year, cannot realistically start all five, yet the Welsh Wizard’s flair in connecting the Reds’ attack and defence will surely be used in some capacity.

It may be unwise to persist with Giggs in the Reds’ engine room though, especially against a Bayern Munich side that will press heavily in the quarter-final. United’s 2-0 loss in Athens was predominantly due to Tom Cleverley failing to run past the Greek press. Giggs is a better dribbler, but still lacks the forcefulness required against better opposition.

While Maroune Fellaini has started to show a semblance of mobility in recent matches, Moyes may turn to Phil Jones, as did Sir Alex Ferguson in games against Real Madrid last season, to neutralise Bayern’s dynamic midfield. With Bayern boasting outstanding options, including Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, Moyes is likely to take a cautious approach.

After all, Leverkusen and Olympiakos were not the toughest opponents, enabling United able to get away with deploying Giggs through the middle. Against stronger sides an alternative creative catalyst must be found.

While Rafael da Silva is a potent weapon from full-back, the Brazilian cannot be expected to instigate United’s attacks given his deeper role. But the 23-year-old can, in addition to the traditional tools of the attacking full-back, make an impact in more central areas by cutting in. Valencia might just be included, à la Ji-Sung Park, to accommodate the former Fluminense player’s attacking role against Bayern.

Another question surrounds Wayne Rooney and van Persie. Each began their careers as a bright number 10, and the Dutch forward certainly made numerous attempts to release his teammates at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Few came to fruition, perhaps understandably since the Dutchman has spent the past three seasons as finisher, not a creator.

Meanwhile on paper, Rooney is United’s chief creator – the Englishman is only one behind Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria in the Champions League assists table this season. Unlike his Dutch partner, the former Everton striker diligently works the channels. European sides often encourage full-backs to push forward and it is an area that could be rewarding for United.

Still, the White Pele has a critical flaw; having lost the ability to beat opponents, Rooney cannot create chances for himself. The 28-year-old requires the space provided by others to operate. van Persie’s clinical finishing and ability in tight quarters have been drawing opponents away from the former Everton man.

The Dutchman’s availability for the games against Bayern is critical, as well as Danny Welbeck has done this season, although United still faces a problem with initiating attacks against Bayern.

Defensively United will miss Patrice Evra, who is banned for the opener against Bayern. Should Jonny Evans recover in time, the Northern Irishman is best place to deputise. Evans lacks Evra’s attacking prowess, but will provide greater security for whomever occupies United’s left flank.

Still, the possibility of Alexander Buttner starting at Old Trafford on 1 April cannot be discounted, meaning that defensive nous is an important criterion in team selection on the left flank.

Welbeck could provide the greatest cover, but he is not the most incisive from a wide role. Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa is completely out of form and has been distinctly uncomfortable playing from the left this season. Giggs could fill in, but playing wide is far more physically draining on the 40-year-old.

Whatever the selection Moyes must avoid deploying Ashley Young against Bayern as the former Aston Villa will be tamely shepherded down the left flank.

This observation leaves Adnan Januzaj as perhaps the Scot’s best choice against the European champions. Januzaj has done a decent job shielding his full-back thus far this season and, perhaps because of his time spent in the United academy, has looked at relative ease when defending. While the teenager may develop into a classic number 10 in time, Januzaj can operate as a traditional left winger if needed.

Welbeck’s explosive pace can be negated by denying the Englishman space, but Januzaj has the close control to handle such situations. Crucially, the 19-year-old has shown enough glimpses to suggest that he could hold key to launching United’s attacks, which are likely to be rare against Bayern.

There is a warning though: should Moyes deem Januzaj ready for the European knockout stages his team-mates trust the youngster and not starve him of the ball as was the case in defeat to Liverpool.

And while the odds remain against United knocking out Bayern, a Chelsea side in complete disarray managed to lift the Champions League in 2011/12. With that precedent in mind, United might as well prioritise continental football this season, using the remaining Premier League games, even the derby, as practice for Europe.

Although Moyes might do well to recall that Roberto di Matteo was fired even after winning the Chelsea’s first Champions League.

Preview: United v Olympiakos

March 18, 2014 Tags: , Matches 18 comments
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It is hard to be sure of the protocol; whether to rubberneck at the car crash happening in Old Trafford’s heartland, or to look away, hoping that it’ll be alright. Certainly, the brutality of Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool on Sunday does not bear another viewing, except perhaps for David Moyes and his coaching team. Whether the 50-year-old would learn anything new is moot. After all, the former Evertonian openly admits that comprehensive defeat to United’s major rivals was “hard to explain”.

Indeed, it is as much Moyes’ excuse-laden approach as United’s results that truly grates among supporters. Add performances that have been as soporific as the manager’s deeply underwhelming response and it is little wonder that terrace sentiment is rapidly moving against a manager just eight months into the job.

After all, there is genuine supporter desire for Moyes to proffer just a modicum of hope – that there is a clear plan for development of this team, and a real understanding of where the problem lies. With each defeat, however, comes greater certainty that Moyes has no plan, and in his own words, no explanation for the disintegration of United’s season.

Still, there is one – perhaps final – opportunity for Moyes to win back some doubters as United host Olympiakos at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. At stake is the Glazers business plan, which is predicated on the Reds reaching the Champions League quarter-final, and United’s pride.

Yet, while this was supposed to be a virtual bye – the easiest draw in the Round of 16 – United begin the match in such disarray there is little guarantee Moyes’ outfit will pull off the 3-0 victory required to progress.

“I think when you lose in the fashion we did, and to one of our biggest rivals, there’s always disappointment,” said Moyes on Tuesday.

“We know it’s a big week but as soon as it’s over, we concentrated on this game. We got the players in on Monday and told them the only thing that matters is this game.

“I see the players every day. I think they know they can play better. I have belief in the players and hopefully we can show it. I agree we haven’t seen it as often as we’d have liked but hopefully we can show it tomorrow. The most important thing right now is to get through into the next round of the competition.”

The team will retain vocal support at Old Trafford on Wednesday, although aggregate defeat to the Greeks followed by poor results against West Ham United and Manchester City might change that dynamic. There was a sense that United fans’ noisy end to Sunday’s match could take a rabble-rousing turn should the upcoming trio of fixtures go against the Reds. Or in other words, while the team can take enduring support for granted, Moyes cannot.

“When you win, you win together and when you lose, you lose together,” said defender Patrice Evra.

“It’s been a difficult season for everyone. We’re not used to losing games. We always win. Everybody wants to fight for this club, everyone loves this club.

“We know we had a bad game in the first leg. Even a three-year-old Manchester United fan will have been hurting from that performance. But in life you always have a second chance and we get that tomorrow tonight. I’m not God and telling you we will qualify tomorrow but I can promise you we will all fight and respect the shirt and make sure all the fans will be really proud of us after the game.

“I’m not selling a dream and saying we will definitely qualify. There are too many words right now. We just have to show on the pitch. That is most important.”

Manchester United v Olympiakos, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 19 March 2014On the pitch Moyes is likely to be without Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, while Juan Mata is cup tied having played for Chelsea earlier in the competition. The Spaniard’s absence could mean a rare outing for Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who Moyes said will “definitely be involved” against the Greek side.

“Shinji’s an important player for us. It’s been a difficult time for him – he’s not played as often as he’d have liked. He’s someone we really like and he’ll definitely be involved at some point tomorrow”

Meanwhile, Olympiakos arrive at Old Trafford in patchy recent form – they lost back-to-back matches prior to the weekend – but having clinched a 41st Greek title with five matches to spare. David Fuster scored the second in a 2-0 victory over Panthrakikos on Saturday that sealed the title following a foul on forward Joel Campbell.

It leaves coach Míchel González del Campo – Míchel – confident heading into the second leg, where the Greeks need only score once to leave United requiring four in normal time to progress

“My players aren’t scared of anything,” said Míchel.

“Maybe the manager is a bit more scared, but they’re not. We would like the game to go the same way as it did in the first leg but we know this will be a different Manchester United. There will definitely be more determination and urgency from them.

“The atmosphere is always fantastic at Old Trafford, it always lifts the team. It is always a pleasant experience to come here. We have played big clubs in big grounds all over Europe and we are not going to change our style. We are going to try to stick to what we do and, even though we won 2-0 in the first leg, we are not going to change anything. As far as I am concerned the whole tie starts here.”

The Spaniard welcomes back striker Javier Saviola from injury. The Argentine will make his 100th appearance in European club competition if selected, although Nelson Valdez is also in contention with Michael Olaitan unavailable.

Olympiakos has lost on each of the club’s 11 visits to England, while United have won all previous home games against Greek opponents. It is a history that augers well for a positive result, even if immediate form suggests otherwise.

Still, the focus is on Moyes and United’s performance. The Scot’s claim to have full backing from United’s boardroom will be tested should the Reds exit at the Round of 16 for a second successive season.

“I have a great job and I know exactly the direction I want to go in,” claimed the Scot on Tuesday. “It has not been the season we hoped but I have ideas of what I want to do and what I want to put in place.”

It is a pitch for time that will gain credence only with results. There have been so few of note this season.

 

Manchester United v Olympiakos Piraeus, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 19 March 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie

Olympiakos (4-5-1): Roberto; Torres, Papazoglou, Papadopoulos, Holebas; Maniatis, Samaris; Campbell, Domínguez, Pérez; Valdez

Substitutes
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Januzaj, Giggs, Cleverley, Welbeck, Hernández,

Olympiakos: Carroll, Manolas, Ibagaza, Marcano, Pelé, Valdéz, Šćepović, Fuster, Bong, Ndinga, Machado

Head-to-head
United 4 Draw 0 Olympiakos 1

Officials (NED)
Referee: Björn Kuipers
Assistant referees: Angelo Boonman, Erwin Zeinstra
Additional assistant referees: Pol van Boekel, Richard Liesveld
Fourth official: Charles Schaap

Prediction
1-1

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Moyes’ pride masks his predjudice

February 26, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 53 comments
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Amid the inevitable hue and cry from the social media crowd over David Moyes’ position as Manchester United manager one wonders quite when the Scot’s pride comes into play. The pride to fix a team fundamentally broken; or the self-respect to walk away before more damage is done. This is, as one supporter put it, no time to talk about dignity – Moyes’ was obliterated in the red-hot Karaiskakis Stadium atmosphere in Piereus on Tuesday night.

Yet, conceit – that most caustic sin – is surely an explicit actor in the Scot’s future. Moyes’ ability to finish a job he has only barely started references inextricably against the harm that may be caused with the 50-year-old remaining in charge.

United’s performance in 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos was as miserable as any this season – and there has seemingly been one nadir followed by another new low over the past six months. United’s only saving grace was that the Greek side, which this winter sold its leading scorer to relegation-bound Fulham, struck only twice.  It is the hope that kills, but hope there is indeed for the second leg in three weeks’ time.

Yet, it will take the most unlikely of United victories to save the Reds season. Out of contention in the Premier League, unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, dumped out of both domestic cups, Moyes’ debut campaign now rests on European redemption. Few will bank on the Scot’s team achieving that goal at Old Trafford next month.

Familiar weaknesses were apparent once again in Athens. Possession was gained and lost with so little care and embarrassingly small impact. United’s inability to turn good positions into real creativity was both a facilitator to defeat and a symptom of the reductive style Moyes has imposed.

Once again United drove the ball long to little effect – the play quickly recycled from central to wide areas and almost inevitably towards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack with little precision. What chances the Reds created were squandered, with just one shot hitting the target all night.

In midfield Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were as ineffective as at any time this season – a problem exacerbated by the less than sophisticated approach. Meanwhile at the back Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic sat so deep as to positively encourage Olympiakos forward. How the home side took advantage.

More frustrating still, United’s 11th defeat of the campaign was built from a base of mental negativity so apparently during Moyes’ reign. It is, after all, not the first time that the Scot’s team has sought predominantly to react to an opponent’s style rather impose one of its own. Against such limited opposition supporters might ponder quite where the Reds’ ambition has gone.

Juan Mata may be cup tied in Europe, but inexplicably Moyes overlooked both the prodigious talents of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa, looking instead to the predictable defensive work of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. That Januzaj was left out of the matchday squad altogether baffled many.

 

Moyes had little choice but to offer contrition for another shocking performance, although once again the Scot offered luck as an excuse. It wears very thin.

“It’s the worst we’ve played in Europe that’s for sure,” said Moyes in the aftermath.

“It was a really poor performance. We didn’t get going from the start. We didn’t deserve anything from tonight. We just didn’t perform well. I’m surprised. I didn’t see that level of performance coming. We came into the game in good form and a good mindset but it didn’t show tonight.”

“I have to say I don’t think we were two goals worse off in the game. They had a shot, which got deflected, but we didn’t offer enough on the night to create a goal really.”

Failure to progress on 19 March will bring the curtain down on the worse United campaign in a quarter-century. Defeat over two legs will also open up the debate about Moyes’ role in United’s slide into mediocrity with ever greater fervour. It will legitimise those already calling for the manager’s head, and add credence to the growing belief that regime change is less painful if both brutally honest and swift.

“We’ll do everything we possibly can to reverse the 2-0 defeat tonight,” added the Scot.

“We’ll put it right, we’re determined to put it right and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the coming weeks. The one good thing is there’s still a second game to come.

“I take responsibility. It’s my team and I’ll always front up. The players are hurting as well. They know how they performed. We’re a team and we stick together.”

Indeed, the momentum now gathering for change may have begun in the heated atmosphere of social media, but has spread to some supporters who are normally a barometer for reason and patience. It is hard not to be reactive when United’s results are so poor and the performances far off a level deemed acceptable.

Still, there is little chance Moyes will be fired before the season is out. It is not much more likely that the Scot will leave in the summer. The word remains that United’s owners are resolutely supportive of a manager who has also been let down by his players.

“There is a lack of confidence and there are some players who just don’t have the quality,” said former United captain Roy Keane, now a pundit on ITV.

“They need six or seven players to rebuild the club. Privately, David Moyes will be shocked at the quality he is working with.”

Those players may come in the summer; whether new talent fixes the problems associated with Moyes’ approach is another question. Little in the season has diverted the former Everton manager from his core belief in the way the game is played, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

It’s that pride thing again.

Preview: Olympiakos v United

February 25, 2014 Tags: , Matches 4 comments
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Strange season, this. So poor has Manchester United’s Premier League campaign been that many suspect even the Reds’ 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday could be another false dawn. Yet, the cynicism surrounding United’s domestic campaign has, in part at least, dissipated on European nights. After all, David Moyes’ side is unbeaten in six Champions League games to date this season, including scoring nine past Bayern Leverkusen in two games.

The knock-out stages are new to Moyes though, who was only once able to guide Everton into Europe’s premier competition – and then only to a play-off defeat at Villareal’s hands. Yet, the step up in class has been seamless for Moyes this season, with United securing victories over Leverkusen, Real Sociedad and Shaktar Donetsk at the group stage.

Olympiakos represents perhaps a more difficult test still, with Míchel González’ side losing only to Paris Saint German at the group stage this season. The Greek side may not be favourites to progress against United, but victories over Anderlecht and Benfica secured second place in Group C and qualification for the Round of 16.

And with United struggling since the turn of the year Olympiakos coach Michel, the former Spanish international midfielder, is confident that his side could put the Reds under pressure in what is likely to be a testing atmosphere at the 32,000 capacity Karaiskakis Stadium.

With the return leg in three week’s time sandwiched between United’s fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City David Moyes’ outfit will do well to secure a first leg lead. It is, says Michel, a game in which the pressure resides with United rather than the greeks.

“Their Premier League situation could be an incentive to them or it could be a burden on their shoulders, we know there’s lots at stake for Manchester United in this match,” Michel said on Monday.

“This kind of situation may weigh too much on their players’ shoulders. United cannot afford any mistakes tomorrow given their position in the Premier League. Experience counts but I think it’s an advantage that a lot of our players don’t have experience at this level. The passion we have displayed to get here will guide us and with all due respect we can create problems for United.”

United’s challenge is exacerbated by Juan Mata’s absence for the visitors. The diminutive Spaniard is cup tied having already appeared for Chelsea in the Champions League. In the Spaniard’s stead Antonio Valencia is likely to be recalled, disrupting an attacking quartet of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Mata that started together for the first time at Palace on Saturday.

Rooney celebrated his new £15 million-a-season contract with an admission that his side has struggled this season. United’s 10 defeats in all competitions has seen the Reds drop out of contention for next season’s Champions League and out of both domestic cups.

Olumpiakos v Manchester United, Champions League, Karaiskakis Stadium, 7.45pm 25 February 2014Elsewhere, Rafael could return after missing two games with concussion, although both Phil Jones and Jonny Evans are injured and missed the trip to Greece. It means Moyes is likely to change his back four once against this season, with Chris Smalling moving inside, Rio Ferdinand dropping to the bench and the Brazilian starting at right-back.

Meanwhile, in central midfield Tom Cleverley could return with Marouanne Fellaini having completed almost 90 minutes against Palace after months out with wrist and groin injuries.

“I’m looking forward to the game. I was fortunate to watch Arsenal and Bayern Munich and I really enjoy Champions League games,” said Moyes on Monday.

“To get through was first and foremost important. To win the group was an added edge. Now I’m looking forward to this one. It’s a really tough game, Olympiakos have a good record here and we know, over the tie, we’ll have to play well to qualify.

“Olympiakos did very well against PSG and Benfica. They came through a difficult group, they have a great home record here. We know it will be a difficult night. They have a big support. It’s far from an easy match.”

There is better news for the visitors in the hosts’ missing players, leaving Olympiakos’ potentially light on goals having sold leading scorer Konstantinos Mitroglou to Fulham during the January transfer window, and with Argentinian striker Javier Saviola unavailable through. Not that the home side has struggled to score goals this season – 103 have come in the domestic league campaign to date.

Yet, Olympiakos begin the tie with United some 23 points ahead of rivals in the Super League having dominated domestic competition for more than a decade. Mitroglou’s sale proffers the impression of a club secure in domestic success and satisfied with reaching the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Mitroglou scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at Anderlecht and 14 further goals in the league before departure to west London.

The 40-times Greek champion is seeking to reach the Champions League quarter-final for the first time since 1999 in a first appearance in the knockout stages for five years. It is a goal inhibited by history; United having won each of the four previous meetings between the clubs. The Reds secured a 2-0 victory in the 2001/02 group stage when David Beckham and Andy Cole scored. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won 3-0 at Old Trafford in the return.

But there are some familiar faces in the Greeks’ squad, including former United goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who played for the Reds between 2001 and 2005. The Northern Irishman is remembered for a difficult period at Old Trafford, but sees a weakness in the current United incarnation.

Carroll is likely start on the bench on Tuesday night after joining the Greek side from OFI Crete in summer 2012.

“They look nervous,” said Carroll on Monday. “Every time you watch them this season you just feel that the opposition will score. It’s weird – you don’t associate that with Manchester United.”

That is United’s new reality of course, although seemingly not always in European competition. Strange season indeed.

 

Olympiakos Piraeus v Manchester United, Champions League, Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, 7.45pm, 25 February 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie

Olympiakos (4-3-3): Roberto; Maniatis, Papazoglou, Papadopoulos, Bong; Ndinga, Pérez, Machado; Campbell, Olaitan, Domínguez

Substitutes
Olympiakos: Carroll, Manolas, Ibagaza, Samaris, Fuster, Marcano, Pelé, Valdéz, Holebas

United: Lindegaard, Giggs, Hernández, Büttner, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Kagawa, Cleverley, Welbeck, Fellaini

Head-to-head
Olympiakos 0 Draw 0 United 4

Officials (ITA)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore, Gianluca Cariolato
Additional assistant referees: Paolo Mazzoleni, Paolo Valeri
Fourth official: Alessandro Giallatini

Prediction
0-0

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Five games that will define United’s season

December 12, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 5 comments
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Salvation was hard fought and, frankly, pretty lucky, but Manchester United secured a first win in four matches on Tuesday night – and boy did David Moyes need it. Defeats to Everton and Newcastle United were not only damaging to Moyes’ credibility, and United’s confidence, but utterly wretched. That Newcastle, 16th last season, completely outplayed United was a measure of just how far Moyes’ side has sunk.

But the narrow victory over Shaktar Donetsk could be the first in a confidence-boosting run leading up to the new year, with the Reds facing five winnable games before 2013 is out. Indeed, it is not hyperbole to say that Moyes desperately needs United to win each of those five – first against Aston Villa in the Premier League, followed by Stoke City in the Capital One Cup. League matches against West Ham United, Hull City and Norwich City follow. It is a period that will surely define the arc of United’s narrative for months to come.

Tuesday’s fixture could have been so different though. For much of the opening period United suffered for the same lethargy, tactical indiscipline and frightful passing that has plagued the Reds for much of this season. Shaktar, ranked 15th in UEFA’s coefficient and having made it to a Champions League quarter-final just once, passed around and through United with such ease that Moyes’ side should have been two down by the interim. The visitors’ 11 shots brought scant reward for a vibrant opening period.

Familiar failings were clear. Through midfield the odd couple of Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs struggled both to contain Shaktar’s attacking movement and to retain possession.

Jones in particular was guilty of allowing midfield runners past him at will, placing Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans under pressure as the Ukrainians’ Brazilian contingent quickstepped their way through. Only profligate finishing saved Moyes further embarrassment.

In fact Jones made just 33 passes in the opening period, with the game all too often bypassing the 21-year-old Lancastrian. Giggs too struggled to impose himself on the game, erring on the side of caution with his passing, before giving the ball away with the few progressive insertions made.

It is a pattern that clearly frustrates Moyes, although at least partly one of his own making. United’s rigidity has reduced passing options all over the pitch, with Moyes seemingly unaware of how to remedy the problem.

“To be honest, it’s been that way since I came here,” said Moyes of his side’s passing.

“We need to win matches and the players responded well to that encouragement. We passed the ball much better after we had given it away terribly in the first half and that’s not like us. We didn’t play particularly well in the opening 30 minutes, we could have been fortunate still to be 0-0 but we missed a couple of chances just before half-time ourselves but we played much better in the second half.

“I thought there wasn’t much difference to the Everton and Newcastle games. Tonight we got the goal. In those other games, Everton and Newcastle got the goal. There wasn’t an awful lot of difference between them.”

In that Moyes is right – United’s performance was only marginally better than against Everton and Newcastle, although the manager may have been more generous in his assessment. Certainly Moyes’ criticism was more reserved than former player Roy Keane, who was far from reticent in his assessment of United’s failings.

“There has been no reaction from the United players from the disappointment of last week,” said the Irishman.

“They don’t look like a team, just a collection of individuals running around. You can defend players for making mistakes but you cannot defend players for not tackling and not getting close to people.

“David Moyes took the heat off the players before the game by saying it is his responsibility but we are talking about experienced players. There are big question marks over the manager and the players. That for Manchester United is certainly not good enough.”

Indeed, United’s players barely dragged themselves out of a gutter of wretchedness in at least two and a half games over the past 10 days. Victory came against Shaktar, but it could so easily have been a reverse.

Yet, the half-time break brought renewed confidence for the home side, although much of the apparent revival can be found in Shaktar’s inexplicable choice to slow the match down just as the visitors had been on top. Had Mircea Lucescu’s side attacked with equal vigor in the second period United might now be staring at the wrong end of defeat, and a Round of 16 tie with one of Europe’s finest.

In such minor details are matches won and lost; confidence found or forgone. But win United did, and it was a fine goal from Jones, whose energy finally began to compensate for a tactical naïvety that is all too apparent when the youngster is deployed in midfield.

With victory comes a sense of renewed hope not only in European competition, where United will be paired with one of Europe’s lesser lights in the next round, but domestic fixtures to come. In a season of no genuine momentum, where performances have rarely sparkled, a quintet of victories before Tottenham Hotspur arrives on New Years Day might just create a little impetus.

Certainly, United’s 12 game unbeaten run before defeat to Everton last week brought only a modicum of belief. In those dozen games five draws peppered victories that only rarely exceeded the mundane. It was a sequence that underlined a common observation: this is not the United of old. Not even the United of a year ago.

Still, there are few excuses left for short-term failure now. Moyes passes six full months in charge by the end of the year, while of the opponents to come none can claim any real form. In fact each of United’s next four league fixtures is against a team below the Reds in the Premier League table.

Paul Lambert’s Villains were beaten comfortably at relegation threatened Fulham last week. West Ham would join their capital neighbours in the bottom three but for goal difference, while Hull and Norwich have each struggled to find any consistency.

In the cup United will face a Stoke side whose focus is on ensuring Premier League status next season, with knock-out competitions a distant second priority.

Only then comes a difficult January, with Spurs at Old Trafford as the year turns, followed by two fixtures with Swansea City, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and a potential Capital One Cup semi-final. If United hasn’t picked up momentum by then, Moyes’ side surely never will.

Preview: United v Shaktar Donetsk

December 10, 2013 Tags: , Matches 1 comment
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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.”

Manchester United v Shaktar Donetsk, Champions League, Old Trafford, 10 December 7.45pmMoyes 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

Teams
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

Head-to-head
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

Prediction
1-1

Matchday Forum discussion

Moyes finds feet in United’s flexibility

November 29, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments
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There was something especially beautiful about Manchester United’s performance in Germany this week. True, the Reds have struck five before and there have undoubtedly been better performances, even on the road. And there will certainly be bigger games and finer opponents this season. Yet, there is a sense that United’s thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen is a seminal juncture in David Moyes’ tenure at Old Trafford. The lightbulb moment; an apple falling dead straight from the tree.

It has nothing to do with old cliches either. United will find confidence from the result, of course, although Premier League champions should not normally lack for it. No, the moment that made United’s victory in Germany’s industrial heartland was Moyes’ decision, finally, to trust Shinji Kagawa as the team’s principle playmaker. Boy did it work.

Kagawa didn’t make the Reds’ victory alone of course. Wayne Rooney excelled in having a hand in four of the visitors’ goals. Ryan Giggs was outstanding two days short of his 40th birthday. And Nani was his brilliant mercurial best in whatever position he chose fit to take up on the night.

Yet, only Kagawa was truly transformative; the Japanese player’s presence seemingly fundamentally altering United’s style. Gone was the staid, predictable movement of the Reds’ depressing performance at Cardiff City on Sunday. In its wake came Kagawa’s drive in the transition from defence to attack and a freedom to make those incisive thrusts from almost anywhere on the pitch.

United’s opening goal is the Kagawa effect in microcosm – the burst of pace to beat Stefan Reinartz, a reverse pass snapped to Ryan Giggs, with Rooney and Antonio Valencia completing an incisive move. In that moment the Japanese offered not only pace to the attack, but an unpredictable variety rarely seen in any other member of Moyes’ squad. How can the Scot even contemplate leaving the former Borussia Dortmund player out now?

It this observation there is no attempt to belittle Rooney’s contribution on the night, which was excellent, nor that of Robin van Persie, who has underpinned the team’s success over the past 18 months. But there was certainly a feeling in the BayArena late on Wednesday night that if Kagawa cannot command a more regular spot at the heart of United’s attack now, then he surely never will.

Each of United’s front four was outstanding, but the Japanese turned out to be the catalyst for change.

“It was a pleasure to play behind that front four,” said Giggs in the aftermath.

“It really clicked and we could have scored more goals, but we mustn’t be too greedy. To score five goals anywhere in Europe has got to be be classed as a good result. Our speed was key, we really killed Leverkusen on the counter attack. The first goal was a prime example of that – really quick play. It was a real pleasure to play the game.”

In that there is also a sadness. Melancholy that stems from a realisation that Kagawa’s lot is surely confined to United’s left, injuries notwithstanding. Indeed, it would take a tactical transformation of a nature anathema to Moyes to bring Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie into the team in positions familiar to each of the trio.

Kagawa is likely to return to United’s left at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday with van Persie returning. At the crux of the matter a simple fact: in most formations three of Rooney, van Persie and Kagawa into two slots simply won’t go. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s wasn’t prepared to make that compromise either in his final season with the club.

Indeed, fans must cast the mind back to the Reds’ formation in 2008 for the last time any United side lined up with the kind of formation that might suit Kagawa. The Reds’ front trio of Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez offer a pointer to perhaps the only way that Moyes could cram his most potent attacking options into one team – a flexible front three comprising a Scouser, a Japanese and a Dutchman.

Still, it was a Scot who gave little away post-match, with a nagging sense remaining that Moyes’ philosophy is predominantly pragmatic, rather than erring on the side of creativity. Kagawa played in the hole in Germany, it seems, not because of the metamorphic effect on United’s tactics, but that it was Moyes’ best option with an injury effected squad.

“It is a long season and we are going to have to make sure we have different combinations for different games and tonight Shinji and Wayne played well,” said Moyes late on Wednesday.

“Sometimes Wayne might need to play up front and Shinji will play behind. We have to make sure we have alternatives. Shinji was excellent tonight but he’s also good on the left.”

In that Moyes will make a fascinating choice in north London on Sunday, with Giggs earning a rest and Marouanne Fellaini set to rejoin the team for the Reds’ visit to White Hart Lane.

The Belgian is far less dynamic than the Welshman even with 15 less years on the clock. Should van Persie return, and Kagawa once again find himself constrained on the left, there is surely ample risk that United’s approach will also reek of inhibition as it did in Wales last weekend.

It is a tactical and philosophical conundrum Moyes is yet to fully solve. Least of all, it seems, in his own mind. The former Everton manager is slowly finding his sea legs at Old Trafford, but there are key decisions to come. History says the 50-year-old always ers on the side of caution.

Yet, as former Red Gary Neville once said, United is a club that can transform a manager, as much as the man the institution. Moyes’ heart is conservative, but Kagawa’s performance on Wednesday night will surely chip away just a little more of the granite façade.

“It was one of my best days as Manchester United manager,” admitted Moyes. “We won well, we played well, with some outstanding performances. There will be better days to come.”

In that there is a feeling Moyes controls much of his own destiny: a lesson learned in the BayArea, or a joyous, if ephemeral, performance.

Preview: Real Sociedad v United

November 4, 2013 Tags: , Matches 1 comment
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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.”

Real Sociedad de Fútbol v Manchester United, Champions League, Anoeta, 7.45pm, 5 November 2013However, 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

Teams
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

Prediction
1-1

Matchday Forum discussion

Preview: United v Real Sociedad

October 22, 2013 Tags: , Matches No comments
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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.”

Manchester United v Real Sociedad, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 23 October 2013Meanwhile, 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

Teams
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

Prediction
3 – 1

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