Suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson is a hard act to follow is one of the biggest understatements out there. Sir Alex is an impossible act to follow and all Manchester United fans should remember this as David Moyes toils through his first year in charge at Old Trafford.
If Fergie was The Beatles, Moyes is Wings. He is Wise to Fergie’s Morecambe, Churchill The Insurance-Flogging Dog to Fergie’s Sir Winston. Okay, so that’s probably doing Moyes a disservice, but the point needs reiterating that Moyes has a thankless task following up Ferguson’s never-to-be-repeated stint as United boss. But he can buy himself some time and an awful lot of goodwill with a decent run in this season’s Champions League.
The odds on United actually winning the Champions League, make for interesting reading. And slightly chastening reading too, if you buy into the bookies’ theory that United will most likely not make it past the Round of 16. Then again, Ferguson’s final Champions League campaign ended at precisely the same stage, courtesy of a Turkish referee.
So a quarter final spot this term could – and should – be viewed as some form of progress. And it’s well within reach of United under Moyes.
The key to achieving a quarter final berth will lie in United winning their group. The signs are good: a hard-fought draw in Donetsk following on from a convincing win over Leverkusen. Beat Real Sociedad home and away and qualification is all but assured. And win the return fixture against Shakhtar and the group should be United’s.
That would mean they’d avoid any number of eye-wateringly tricky Round of 16 ties against other probable group winners such as Bayern, Barca, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain and the decidedly dangerous Atletico Madrid. Juventus, AC Milan and Porto could be waiting in the wings instead, but they’re all winnable ties.
To achieve any and all of that though, Moyes needs to do two things: be bold with his team selection and decisive in the transfer market. He is yet to work out his definitive first team, the go-to guys that he’ll pick for the biggest games.
The toughest puzzle he’s yet to solve is what is his first-choice defence. David de Gea’s excellent form makes him the easiest name to put on the team sheet, but directly in front of him the issues are somewhat cloudier.
For all his experience and class, Rio Ferdinand is starting to show his age rather badly. He’s a yard slower, considerably less flexible thanks to that dodgy back of his and, well, he’s just not what he once was.
Moyes could do worse than take a leaf out of Mourinho’s book regarding Rio. The Chelsea manager routinely picks John Terry for Premiership games but leaves him out in the Champions League. Experience and know-how count for a lot, but in the rarefied heights of Europe, opponents will figure out your weaknesses and go hard at them. Rio, alas, is one of those weaknesses.
Assuming that form is temporary while class is permanent, Vidic’s unconvincing start to the season should be viewed as a blip. It’s who consistently plays alongside him that will keep Moyes occupied for a wee while yet.
Evans? Jones? Smalling? It has to be the latter, doesn’t it? His form has not been great, but he is the future. He’s got pace, athleticism and is excellent on the ball – three things that the Champions League rewards.
The midfield is a mess in progress. Too many like-minded players, not enough creativity and goals. That’s where Moyes will need to hit the January transfer window. A technical, attack-minded, goal-scoring midfielder is desperately required to give United the balance and X-factor so clearly missing at the moment.
Never mind Adnan Januzaj. His moon will wax and wane this season, as it would with any talented but mercurial teenager. Think Dortmund’s Marco Reus, Paris St Germain’s Javier Pastore or, whisper it, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil. They’re the kind of dynamic attacking midfielder that United will need to remain convincing and competitive in this year’s Champions League.
This year’s Champions League draw has been kind to Moyes, offering him a relatively gentle introduction into a competition that is often rather more ruthless and cut-throat. He has a great chance of surpassing his predecessor’s last European campaign, and that should earn him a lot of breathing space and a good deal of credit.
But there is one scenario that could spoil Moyes’s European party – failure to qualify for next year’s competition. This year’s Premiership season is shaping up to be a wild and thrilling ride. Any one of maybe six teams could win the damned thing. And only four of those six will make the Champions League 2014/2015. If Moyes’s United aren’t among them, then it might not be Moyes’s United at all