MANCHESTER // If that is Manchester United’s reaction when they see a league table that shows them closer on points to the relegation zone than the top four, David Moyes’s reign has contained at least one welcome surprise.
When the Scot was appointed, there were questions about his inexperience and his uninspiring record in Europe. Yet it is the Premier League that has proved the problem for Moyes. United’s progress in the Uefa Champions League has been altogether more impressive. With half the group games remaining, a place in the last 16 seems a near certainty.
Real Sociedad were overcome on Wednesday courtesy of Inigo Martinez’s second-minute own goal even if, as is the norm for United these days, they were unable to sustain their excellence for 90 minutes. The consolation for Moyes was that a weakened side nevertheless secured three points and, without convincing completely, they nevertheless deserved them.
That was in part because of an up-tempo, upbeat start. If Moyes’s misfortune appeared to be continuing when Robin van Persie was ruled out with, confusingly, a groin problem and two bad toes, United soon received a hint that the manager’s luck may be turning. A comical goal, albeit one that followed confirmation of Wayne Rooney’s fine form, certainly suggested that.
As Rooney veered in from the left, jinking past Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez, he whipped in a shot that bounced back off the post, hit Inigo Martinez and rolled into the empty net.
If Sociedad were aggrieved that Javier Hernandez was hovering in an offside position, the Mexican was not deemed to be interfering with play.
Indeed, Hernandez spent much of his time behind the Sociedad defence. Rather than earning United a goal, it may have cost them one. Van Persie’s deputy had a goal chalked off when, offside, he headed in a cross by Ryan Giggs. United were rampant, Rooney roaming around with intent and the recalled Giggs exerting an influence in the centre of midfield.
Yet after United’s initial onslaught, Sociedad rallied, belying their mediocre record this season. Moyes’s men have received recent reminders that a one-goal lead can be precarious. So it proved. David de Gea tipped Antoine Griezmann’s rising shot over the bar and when the Frenchman beat United’s Spaniard with a curling free kick, it rebounded off the post. While this time there was no hapless defender on hand to score an own goal, Jonny Evans sliced an attempted clearance perilously close to his own bar after the break.
United’s difficulties were caused in part by an inability to put the game to bed. Claudio Bravo, who had done well to keep out Rooney’s first-half volley, demonstrated his reflexes again to block a forceful header by Phil Jones. Bravo also saved from Rooney and while he was defeated when the Englishman found Antonio Valencia, the winger became the latest to discover that the Old Trafford goalposts were exerting a magnetic effect on shots. The far post denied him.
Having conceded a late equaliser against Southampton on Saturday, United managed to prevent an unwanted action replay. Yet these are anxious times at Old Trafford, especially without their injured captain Nemanja Vidic, and this side has a sense of vulnerability at the moment. But at least Europe has offered a little respite before the task of repairing the damage done to their title chances begins against Stoke on Saturday.
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