Moments of truth: Matches against Liverpool, Olympiakos and Manchester City will go a long way to defining David Moyes' long-term future at Manchester United
Direction of club and manager hinges on three crucial tests in the next 10 days
Sunday 16 March 2014
The fixtures stand before him like the peaks of a mountain range; Liverpool, Olympiakos, Manchester City. Unless at least one is conquered, then David Moyes's first season at Old Trafford will slither away into nothing.
And it will not be met with a shrug of the shoulders. Ed Woodward, the club's chief executive, may be briefing that Manchester United will take the £42 million hit that comes with non-qualification for the Champions League (they budget to reach the quarter-final); Sir Alex Ferguson may have taken time out from the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles to argue that the man he invited to succeed him requires more time and more money to add to the £150m he has spent on signing Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata and tying Wayne Rooney to the club for the next five years.
But where it counts, in Old Trafford's giddying stands and the club's vast constituency beyond Manchester, the mood is starting to shift. Nobody wants to be the one who in 1989 unveiled the banner fashioned from a bed sheet that proclaimed "Three Years of Excuses and It's Still Crap – Ta-ra Fergie", although the man who did, Pete Molyneux, went on to became a minor local celebrity.
However, the sight of Roy Keane lacerating United for their limp surrender in Athens and then mocking Michael Carrick as he tried to excuse the performance against Olympiakos signalled a shift in mood that will worsen dramatically should Liverpool win at Old Trafford today – for only the second time in a decade.
Not since the Spice Boys years of Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler have they travelled to United ahead of them in the Premier League. Only once has Moyes beaten a team of any consequence at Old Trafford – Arsenal in November. The Scot concedes he needs a win and he needs it now.
"I agree with you totally," said Moyes. "I can only tell you how I feel. I feel we have played a bit better recently but we have to show it against the other sides. This will be an opportunity to do that. I am sure Liverpool are confident. The roles have been reversed this year but we go into the game knowing the importance of it."
Victory this afternoon and the not inconceivable scenario that the biggest football brand in the world could score three times against the champions of an almost bankrupt Greek league would change the crabbed, defensive atmosphere at the club's training complex that lies at the far end of the Mersey from Liverpool. "It would give me time for my plans for what I want to do going into next season," said Moyes. "There are a lot of things that I want to do going into next season. It would give me a chance to look at that. It would help me."
Brendan Rodgers once offered advice to Moyes on succeeding a man who dominated his club. He had, after all, taken over from Kenny Dalglish. However, he accepts there was a difference. "I don't think it's good to compare," said the Liverpool manager. "David took over the champions, a club that was used to winning titles. I took over a team in eighth."
The difference between Moyes and Rodgers is that the latter knows what he wants and is implementing it. The former, who one day may admit the truth of Keane's observation that he would be "shocked by the quality of some of the players he has inherited", seems to have only one engine of survival; to reach the end of the season and regroup in the summer.
He has done it before. A decade ago, in only his second full season at Everton, they were nearly relegated and his relationship with Rooney collapsed. There was a mooted takeover at Goodison Park and Moyes' job was considerably less secure than it is at United this morning. He found himself on a pre-season tour that took him to Houston. It was there, in the summer heat of Texas that he plotted the transformation of Everton from a club whose only ambition was to keep their precious top-flight status to one that tilted at the Champions League.
"Houston gave David the chance to pull us together as a squad, take us out, work with us and get things sorted," said Kevin Kilbane, who played with him at Preston and worked under him at Goodison. "He is capable of that. It was a brilliant piece of management in adversity. One of his great strengths is his ability to weigh up players in good times and bad. He probably recognised weaknesses in United's squad but he felt he had to give the title-winners a chance and he would be open to accusations of tampering with a successful squad if he didn't do that."
United's short-term situation is a mess, but a club that makes more money in six months than Liverpool do in a year will never be short of cash to throw at a solution.
Rodgers' problems are the reverse. The short term is secure, Liverpool will qualify for the Champions League but they will still be competing against sides who, to quote the Everton manager Roberto Martinez, "are prepared to spend £300 million to win a trophy".
"It will be very difficult to compete against Manchester City and Chelsea long term," said Rodgers. "We are trying to prove you can do it in a different way. We have had to move a lot of players out to generate the funds to bring people in."
Those who travel from Merseyside to Old Trafford will not linger too long over the long term. Jamie Carragher always disagreed with Ferguson's claim that his greatest achievement was "knocking Liverpool off their perch". Liverpool, said Carragher, were not pushed, they fell. If anyone knocked them off it was really George Graham's Arsenal. "Since 1991 Ferguson did no more than walk past us once a season and kick us when we were down," Carragher said.
Now it is Manchester United who lie bleeding and Liverpool who are coming to Old Trafford wearing their hobnail boots.
Manchester United v Liverpool is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
What United are doing wrong
1. Not making use of their attacking potential. The complaint of Robin van Persie that "people keep taking my space" sums up the concern.
2. Poor midfield tempo. The defeat at Olympiakos was an example of the lack of pace, urgency and direction in United's midfield.
3. Lack of a consistent central defensive partnership. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic fading forces, only at the tail end of the season has David Moyes settled on Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
4. Not addressing public concerns. Van Persie's interview with the club programme was a rare example of a United player publicly backing their manager.
5. Not winning the big games. This season, aside from a 1-0 win over Arsenal, United have not beaten a single team in the Premier League's top nine.
What Liverpool are doing right
1. Making Anfield a fortress. In 14 home League games Liverpool have dropped just five points compared to United's 18.
2. Targeting defensive weaknesses. Twice this season Liverpool have delivered early knockout blows, targeting Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny on his weaker side and, against Everton, the gap between Leighton Baines and rookie John Stones.
3. Finding a new role for Steven Gerrard. The captain has adapted better than most would have imagined.
4. Keeping the team together. Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger all flirted with leaving but were won over by Rodgers' powers of persuasion.
5. Making people like them. The club are relaxed, confident and carrying a lot of neutral support.
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