A team in crisis facing the runaway league leaders. A team in decline facing the new kings of English football.
That’s how it had been billed.
Luckily for us, however, Manchester United don’t do scripts, if anything they enjoy nothing more than defying them.
For a game played on Bonfire Night, United’s 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad showed a remarkable lack of spark, which still leaves United one point clear of Bayer Leverkusen and three clear of Shakthar Donetsk, with a trip to Germany likely to play a big role in deciding United’s destiny in Group A.
Hardly an ideal scenario by any means, and one that could have been easily avoided had United done just a little bit more tonight.
It was an afternoon of fun, beers were joyfully consumed, classic songs were belted out with gusto and United seemed to slightly regain the swagger of yesteryear. It was, in other words, the sort of afternoon that had proved all too rare so far this season.
Except that United’s leisurely stroll along the Thames could have been even better had Moyes’ men capitalised on a formidable start that had them three goals up within 24 minutes, rather than sit back and negotiate the second half with all the intensity of an 18-year-old waking up stranded on a park bench after a monumental night out.
It’s the cup no one cares about, and the trophy nobody dreams to win at the start of the season. It’s also the tournament in which, until a few years ago, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic would have been rested, rather than summoned for a mundane fourth round. It might also be the trophy that provides David Moyes with a much-needed confidence boost.
Having fought tooth and nail against Liverpool in the previous round, United sailed through to the fifth round tonight, their performance unexpectedly solid, considering the poor displays they had at times offered in the League Cup even under Fergie’s guidance.
For once, rather than on football, all the pre-match focus had been on books and music.
The books, or rather the book,was obviously Sir Alex Ferguson’s biography, whose revelations have grabbed all the headlines since yesterday’s press conference, while the music was supposed to be provided by Old Trafford’s brand new singing section, the first of hopefully many attempts to revive the stadium’s atmosphere.
There were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about today. United, for a start, were back after a two-week absence forced upon us by the international break and they were back having just renewed Adnan Januzaj’s contract, as the talented teenager put pen to paper on a five-year deal just when most Reds had begun to expect a repeat of the fiasco that surrounded Paul Pogba’s departure.
If those weren’t enough reasons to be cheerful, David Moyes opted for an attacking-minded starting XI, with Ashley Young and Anderson nowhere near the first team squad, as Nani and Januzaj occupied the two flanks, with Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini deployed in the middle of the park.
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? A youngster scoring a crucial goal on his first start Manchester United, thus making it impossible to avoid the hype and hysteria and the words “star” and “born”. However, while hoping that Adnan Januzaj won’t become another Federico Macheda or, worse even, Paul Pogba Part 2, when one cuts through the fanfare that will surround the Belgian after today’s performance, it’s easy to realise that United have a wonderful, wonderful talent on their hands.
Januzaj’s performance was almost as brilliant as Wayne Rooney’s first start for the club, arguably even more impressive given that had it not been for the 18-year-old, United would have probably lost the game and sparked worldwide paranoia in the 650m-strong fan base Ed Woodward cares about so much.
If ever a team has suffered from bipolar disfunction, David Moyes’ Manchester United are that team. An hymn to ineptitude, slackness and disorganisation on Saturday, an almost perfectly oiled unit tonight, the Reds return from a complicated trip to Eastern Ukraine with a very valuable point.
Granted, it could have been even better had United not conceded 15 minutes from time, but how romantic that a man whose name rhymes with that of a disgraced boxer was the one to deliver a sucker punch to Moyes’ men?