“The big challenges are the biggest stage and it is a true test of all footballers in Europe,” said former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who, like Sir Matt Busby had done before him, immediately grasped the notion that, for all their desire to succeed domestically, Manchester United live and die by the European Cup.
Having lifted European club football’s most coveted prize twice under Fergie’s tutelage, United enter uncharted territory tonight, when they welcome Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford in David Moyes’ first Champions League match in charge of the club.
Moyes has made a steady start to his United career, despite the farcical end to the transfer window seven points from the first four games are a respectable return, particularly considering that United have negotiated a tricky trip to Swansea, draw against Chelsea and only lost against Liverpool.
The European Cup, however, is going to represent a complete different challenge for Moyes, whose limited experience in Europe casted more than a doubt over his appointment, as the Scot’s only previous experience in the Champions League lasted the two legs of the third qualifying round in the 2005-06 season, when Everton were knocked out by Villareal.
Moyes did guide the Toffees to the last 16 of what was then known as UEFA Cup in the 2007-08 season, but guiding United in Europe’s elite competition is likely to be an even bigger challenge for Moyes than defending the Premier League title.
There’s no quick-fix solution for the Scot’s inexperience in the Champions League – which he would have had to deal with even had he taken charge of a smaller club – but United must not allow it to become a problem for, as we know all too well, even the group stages can be unforgiving in the Champions League.
Furthermore, Everton took their European campaigns under Moyes as nothing more than a bonus, a pleasant – and at times, unexpected – opportunity to push for silverware, though the domestic side of the equation always remained the priority for the Merseysiders, while United expect and demand success in Europe.
Having appeared in three finals over four years between 2008 and 2011, United endured a dismal campaign in 2012 when an excessive squad rotation and a series of poor performances saw them knocked out in the group stages, while last season’s exit against Real Madrid in the round of 16 was marred by Nani’s sending off.
This season, United might have avoided the group of death, but their opponents in group A are hardly what Moyes would consider a walkover and should be treated with great respect. Bayer Leverkusen have come a long way under former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, Shakthar Donetsk might have lost two of their star men this summer but have been Champions League regulars for some time, while Real Sociedad boast the usual mixture of technique and unpredictability typical of Spanish clubs.
Undoubtedly David Moyes would have preferred an easier ride, but he can find comfort in the notion that it took Sir Alex Ferguson a couple of years to produce a side that was highly competitive in Europe, as Fergie gradually relinquished his gung-ho approach for a more continental, controlled, strategy which saw United prioritise end product over style.
During the final years of his career, the former United manager became increasingly reliant on rotating his squad in Europe, thus paving the way for puzzling team selections in more than one occasion and it will be interesting to see whether Moyes will follow the same path or whether he’d stick to field his best XI.
Failure to significantly strengthen the squad this summer means that United are still a couple of steps behind the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona and Marouane Fellaini remains unproven at European level, even though his physical presence is likely to prove a valuable asset in Europe.
Furthermore, many of the favourites for this season’s Champions League have looked somewhat fragile at the back and David Moyes’ ability to make his sides hard to beat could spark a few surprises in his inaugural European campaign at Old Trafford.
The romantics amongst us would love to see United putting team to the sword in Europe but, realistically, a series of diligent and compact performances is what most Reds would be happy to see, as long as the approach bears its fruits. Moyes’ first European campaign could be a bumpy ride but as Jurgen Klopp – a manager who shares Moyes’ almost maniacal attention to detail in terms of analysing opponents – showed last season, young managers can have a very bright future in the European Cup.