Bayern Munich 3 Manchester United 1 comment: David Moyes has earned the right to lead United back to the Champions League
There was a level of team discipline that has been absent this season
There was no disguising the impact on David Moyes. For the most fleeting and precious moment in this most wretched season, he finally discovered what it had been like for Sir Alex Ferguson all those years, feeling the thrill of improbable victory and daring to rewrite the preordained script.
It had gone within 22 seconds of football; viciously wrested from him like hope so often has these past eight months when the directions he shouted into the ears of his jubilant players as they celebrated – something along the lines of ‘hold tight, ‘focus’ and ‘keep a grip’ - came to nothing and Bayern Munich scored. And then scored again. And again.
But from deep within the wretchedness, the new Manchester United manager can take something away from Bavaria. This was the tie in which his team was supposed to tank, be overwhelmed, and his own weakness be laid bare, yet instead they revealed that they belonged on the stage which they will now exit for the first time in 18 years. His team – the weaker of these two sides, containing remnants of old and new, sorely in need of repair - had played their part and he could say he had engineered that.
Moyes still looked like a manager in search of the players whom he could trust and who might bear the imprint of the new Manchester United. When it had seemed like a night for the old twin pillars of the defence to make their last stand, he turned to Chris Smalling to partner Nemanja Vidic. And when it has seemed like he might defend to the hilt he was prepared to play Shinji Kagawa, the player whose exact value has seemed to perplex him above all others.
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Bayern 3 Man United 1 - as it happened
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He seems to struggle to get them to listen to him, too. Ryan Giggs tells a story of the lengths players always went to, to pretend that they could not hear what Sir Alex Ferguson was bellowing at them, which often entailed keeping a distance, but 20 minutes in last night Phil Jones was two yards away and still no flicker of response when Moyes gestured.
But the picture was deceptive. The individual contributions of Smalling, Phil Jones and Patrice Evra scrambled that image which has surfaced periodically in the last eight months – and generally in the deepest pit of crisis – of a squad which is in a state of dislocation from the manager. They shielded David de Gea from the need to make a solitary save in a first half in which United posed the greater attacking threat, just as they had been in Manchester last week.
Mario Mandzukic scores 22 seconds after United (GETTY)
And there was more to the defensive component than the defenders. It was like an alarm bell issuing through the United ranks when Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben seized the ball, bringing Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck steaming back to double up on them with discipline as substantial as anything we have seen from this Moyes team this season.
When United seized the ball and sought to break out there was also a commodity so absent from United’s game at times that even as he bristled from a Friday lunchtime press inquisition a month or ago Moyes had to admit he was struggling how to find it. Pace. More pace than we have seen from United in the past eight months. Kagawa helped locate it, rapidly ferrying the ball to Welbeck whose pace Bayern Munich just do not find comfortable.
And when the rapid pass was not the option, there was something more prosaic. The early lofted ball eased over the defence for Wayne Rooney was not out of the modernist school but from the boot of Darren Fletcher it provided the first half’s prime opportunity. It added up to a lot more than the United Guardiola had tried to characterise before the game of a team prone to defend with a flat back nine. The talk in Germany is of how Guardiola can be undone by “guerrilla tactics” of teams who wait back and strike like burglars in the night. It was nothing like that.
Thomas Muller celebrates putting Bayern 2-1 up (EPA)
Neither was it an unimaginable event when United led. This had been nothing like the war of attrition they had waged against Guardiola’s Bayern at Wembley in the 2011 final and the tragedy for Moyes was that the goal erased a lot of that steel. The “crime” – as Moyes put it - of their lapsed concentration in the last half hour wiped out so much of the credit that the first hour delivered to the players reputations and to his. But the team’s failure to deliver in the final third told the real story of Manchester United and the way they have deteriorated to a level in which they cannot compete with the best.
It was a measure of the unhealthy dependency on Rooney that Moyes sent him in to play against the Germans with a chipped bone in his toe, in the first place. The manager then made the remarkable revelation after the game – in which Rooney played the full 90 minutes - that the player had been struggling to kick a ball with the affected left foot. United paid a heavy price for that. Rooney spurned the chance Fletcher made, seeming unable to transfer the ball from his left foot to right when the lofted ball put him through, and then scuffed the ball that Welbeck tapped into his path with the scores at 1-1. The mighty Manchester United, fielding a striker unable to kick a football. What kind of indictment is that?
The high mountains of Europe are history for United. It may be a long road back. The odds are against the return being as immediate and grand as the club would like us to believe. But Moyes has at least earned the right to be the man at the front, seeking a way out of the wilderness.
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