David Moyes has encountered what’s best described as a schizophrenic reception since his appointment as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor. For some of the United faithful, the knives were well and truly out following a heavy Manchester derby defeat and a shock home loss to West Bromwich Albion at the weekend. Theses losses, however, sandwiched a victory over a resurgent Liverpool side that left many safe in the assurance that the good old perch-knocking days aren’t quite over yet.
With league form faltering and another round of Champions League matches this week, Moyes can only hope that United’s visit to Shakhtar Donetsk will bring some respite. Ironically, however, if there’s any arena in which Moyes needs to truly prove himself worthy of one of the most coveted positions in world football, it’s in Europe’s elite club competition.
United’s group, comprising of Bayer Leverkusen, Málaga and Shakhtar may look less imposing than one boasting another of the big names, but make no mistake; all three of these sides are more than capable of mixing it with the best. The same could have been said of Dortmund last season before their breathless run to the final brought them to prominence. Indeed, that run would’ve ended against Málaga had it not been for two injury time strikes for the German side.
Admittedly, the Spanish side aren’t the force they were last season, currently lying in 10th in La Liga having lost the spine of their team following the departures of Martín Demichelis, Jérémy Toulalan, and Isco. Leverkusen proved meek opposition when they appeared at Old Trafford two weeks ago, but their formidable domestic form (six wins and only one defeat) in the ever-strengthening Bundesliga means they are written off at their opponent’s peril. Shakhtar knocked Chelsea out of the group stages last season and have proven themselves savvy operators when it comes to discovering and developing young talent, particularly from South America.
But it isn’t just the deceptive, easy to underestimate strength of United’s group that makes it key to seeing just what Moyes is made of. His track record at Everton was superlative, particularly when considering the restricted budget that he worked with, but the one area he never got to grips with was continental competition. Their only foray into the Champions League, in 2005, was brought to a crunching halt before they even reached the group stage, and the same fate befell them twice more in the Europa League. The best Moyes managed was reaching the last 16 of the latter competition in 2008, when they were knocked out on penalties by Fiorentina. In short, nowhere near what United fans have come to expect from their illustrious club.
Moyes has already taken a decidedly Ferginian step in proclaiming that his current squad isn’t good enough to win the competition, which, if it achieves the desired effect, will simultaneously motivate the team to prove their manager wrong whilst also shielding the players from criticism should they fall short in Europe; Moyes will be hoping more than anything else that they don’t.