Manchester United v Manchester City: Manager David Moyes must show that he can beat the elite - starting tonight at Old Trafford

The question of who are Manchester’s top dogs hardly needs asking any more. For the red half, they just need to prove they can keep up

The sense of Manchester United turning a corner has proved illusory too many times to create any sense that events since the Liverpool catastrophe, nine days ago, have changed anything.

Two subsequent victories, against Olympiakos and West Ham, have been of the kind which characterise David Moyes’ United – incredibly welcome at the time but, on deeper reflection, the least to be expected. There has actually only been one win all season, home or away, against the Premier League elite of Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. With the exception of the Bayern Munich Champions League quarter-final which brings no great expectations, tonight’s Manchester derby is Moyes’ last chance before the summer to demonstrate to United’s owners that he can beat the elite with the squad Sir Alex Ferguson bequeathed him.

Against that backdrop, the usual pre-derby conversation about the balance of power in Manchester was almost entirely absent yesterday, lost in the fog of United’s very individual, lonely war. You must reach back to March 1978 for the last time City entered a Manchester derby with an advantage over the neighbours comparable to tonight’s – a 10-point lead in the days of two points for a win, which in today’s currency would be 16 points. In the days when Roberto Mancini or Mark Hughes were in charge at City, the assertion from a City manager that “the best team is Manchester City because we are at the top of the table” would constitute an act of aggression. It did not even command a follow-up question when Pellegrini made the point yesterday.

 

Moyes, who arrived to talk an hour after the Chilean, looked like a man who knows he is still in a dark place. The suggestion that he was one game away from the sack when Olympiakos arrived here last week elicited a sharp response – “rubbish” – from the top of the club, but the manager is still on a war footing.

He shifted on to his inquisitors the knife between the ribs that Brendan Rodgers delivered when questioning Moyes’ declaration that Liverpool were favourites for their match. “I would never say that at Liverpool – even if I was bottom of the league,” Rodgers had observed. “Well, Jose Mourinho says Manchester City are favourites for the title. I don’t know if anyone replied to that when he said that but you were quite happy to reply to me saying it,” Moyes retorted. He skirted around the point that it had been Rodgers who made the observation, when reminded. “I think you know the style I am,” he said. “I try to be [honest]. Some of you don’t write it the way I say it but that’s the difference between me and you possibly, then.”

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He made a conflict out of the observation that United’s defeats to elite sides had been born of their midfield’s failure to contend with City, Chelsea and Liverpool – to name three – flooding that area of the field. He turned the question into one of statistics – “if you’re going to tell me now that the stats were way in favour of one team I would probably take you upstairs and show you that wasn’t the case” – when no numbers had been quoted. It hardly takes a statistician to demonstrate how City’s midfielders have powers to create and score that United have lacked. Between them, Yaya Touré, Fernandinho, David Silva and Samir Nasri have scored 38 goals this season, while for United, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick have managed one apiece. “I do agree with your point that they’ve got qual… very good midfielder players who are goalscorers,” Moyes said of the opposition, correcting himself in a way that displayed his usual balancing act. He often states that other managers have a quality of player he did not find in his own inheritance, while not denigrating his own.

It was United’s ceremonial thumping by City last autumn which provided Moyes with probably his first sense of how great the quality differential was. On 24 September he said that he expected to take “many more blows” this season and yesterday reflected that they had been harder and more relentless than even he had imagined. “They’ve hurt more because I joined Manchester United with big expectations myself – that I’m coming to the winning football club. I’m disappointed with myself and I’m disappointed that we’ve been unable to do that.”

He was asked if he felt there was more he could have done and no manager’s answer could be more valid than his “no, I don’t actually” because he is the ultimate arch-analyst, who pores over defeat, lives with it, “locks himself away with it,” as one friend of his tells it. “Like the bloody Rain Man” his former Everton physio Mick Rathbone has said of Moyes’ absorption with the details of what goes wrong.

The hyper-analysis does not always help. It can breed the caution which has imbued the Moyes United with more caution, defensiveness. It has certainly made Old Trafford a different sort of place. A sixth home defeat of the Premier League campaign tonight would be United’s biggest number in the domestic championship since that 1997-78 season, while another point dropped would condemn them to their worst return in the Premier League era. Just two more records of an unwelcome kind for the manager some supporters, with characteristic black humour, have christened Roy Castle.

Of course, Moyes deflected the notion that he could not afford another home defeat. “I think the fans know exactly where we’re at just now. I think they know exactly where we’re going,” he said. But there is anything but certainty for either him, or them. This week, just like last week, brings a monumental need for victory.

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