Just before Manchester United’s most important game against Bayer Leverkusen, the one in 2002 that had a place in a European Cup final in Sir Alex Ferguson’s home city of Glasgow at stake, Roy Keane looked around him. There, as the Champions League anthem played, he noticed one of his team-mates, whom the Irishman untypically refused to name, “shaking with nerves”.
There will be a shiver running through David Moyes’s body as the music plays at Old Trafford tonight but it will be of anticipation rather than fear. When the realisation he would be succeeding Ferguson began to roll through his mind, it would have been occasions like this that would have seemed most thrilling.
No stadium in England transforms itself for European nights quite like Old Trafford. On Saturday against Crystal Palace the atmosphere was flat and routine in a way it seldom is at Anfield. However, under the floodlights it becomes what it is, one of the world’s great arenas. As he gave his first Champions League press conference, Moyes was sitting in a room in which there were 15 separate photographs of United players and managers with the European Cup.
His own taste of Europe had been fleetingly brief. As an 18-year-old an injury to Danny McGrain had seen him pitched into the Celtic back four that attempted to keep a glitteringly talented Juventus side at bay.
His years at Everton gave him one shot at the Champions League. They were drawn in a qualifier against Villarreal in 2005 and lost narrowly with the performance of the celebrity referee, Pierluigi Collina, sticking in Moyes’ throat as they flew through the night back to Merseyside. At least there was the consolation of the Uefa Cup. Everton took another flight, this time to Bucharest, and lost 5-1.
“I have always wanted to get to the Champions League,” he said. “I did everything I possibly could at Everton to reach it and I couldn’t quite make that happen. Now, at Manchester United I am going to do everything I possibly can to win it.”
Alongside him, preparing for the opening fixture against Leverkusen, was Rio Ferdinand. It says something for the standards at United that Ferdinand once remarked that he had spent the summer wondering whether the club had enjoyed a good enough season. United had won the league and the League Cup and reached the European Cup final where they had been unable to keep Barcelona at bay.
Something of that swagger seems to have gone, at least in the Champions League. You would have to go back three years to their evisceration of a Milan side that featured David Beckham to find the last time United overcame a major continental power in the competition. Of their last nine European fixtures at Old Trafford under Ferguson, United won just three and that included a victory over Braga in which they had come from two-goals down.
“We have some catching up to do,” said Ferdinand. “It doesn’t matter where you finish in the European Cup, if you don’t win it or reach the final, you have something to prove. Last time, against Real Madrid, we went out in dubious circumstances to say the least but we have to improve.”
When Moyes complained that the start United had been given in the Premier League was as difficult as anyone could remember, he was accused of displaying the paranoia that once came as standard at Old Trafford. He had more than a point and, although Arsenal or Celtic might consider United’s games straightforward, United have been drawn in what for them is an unusually tricky Champions League group, featuring the third-best team in Germany, the fourth-best in Spain (Real Sociedad) and the champions of Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk). It is not a group of death but it might be one that carries a risk of serious injury.
It is a rule of thumb in tournament football that the successful team usually emerges from a difficult group. On the two occasions Ferguson lifted the European Cup, United were drawn with Barcelona and Bayern Munich in 1998-99 and in 2007-08 with Roma, Sporting Lisbon and Dynamo Kiev.
They may benefit from being toughened up early and Moyes rejected the suggestion he would rest players with Sunday’s Manchester derby in mind. “My philosophy has always been that the next game is the most important one,” he said. “In time, I may alter my view but I will look no further than Bayer Leverkusen.”
For his counterpart, Sami Hyypia, the photographs of all the European Cups would not be intimidating. He had, after all, won the trophy in the most wildly improbable circumstances with Liverpool in 2005. He smiled when recalling his final 90 minutes in a Liverpool shirt. “It was here and we won 4-1,” he said. “That is the first thought in my mind when I think of Old Trafford but I also remember getting sent off here after four minutes’ play and watching the rest of the game in the dressing room. As a player, it was a much simpler job than the one I have now.”
His job of managing Leverkusen has been carried out remarkably well, although the departures of André Schürrle to Chelsea and Daniel Carvajal to Real Madrid have lowered expectations. When asked about a long injury list, Hyypia was asked if he would make himself available. “Well,” he replied. “I am afraid I haven’t trained.”
“But I think David Moyes is under more pressure,” Hyypia added. “He has a little bit more experience of this area of football than me. Manchester United are playing at home and they have big expectations. He will have the pressure. We can be quite relaxed, enjoy the stadium and the night.”
Nevertheless, Hyypia may be expecting slightly more. Asked, as his team gathered at Cologne Airport, if he had any hopes for what lay ahead, he replied: “The players should be looking to take more than Wayne Rooney’s autograph back home with them.”