Even when results are not forthcoming, Manchester United loyalists look for reasons to believe better days are around the corner. United have offered too few to expect anything other than further misery.
If United exit Europe, it may be the day fans turn on Moyes
It threatens to be judgement day for David Moyes. March 19, when Olympiacos visit Old Trafford. March 19, when the last possible silver lining to Manchester United’s appalling season may disappear. March 19, when United could begin an exile from the Uefa Champions League.
Or, of course, when United book a quarter-final place, something Sir Alex Ferguson did not achieve in his final two years at the helm.
But if the talk before Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat in Piraeus in the first leg of the last-16 tie was of emulating the Liverpool team of 2005 and Chelsea’s class of 2012, sides who underachieved in the Premier League but conquered Europe, afterwards aims had to be downgraded simply to beating the Greek champions. And impressive as Olympiacos were, they may be the weakest qualifier for the last 16.
And so March 19’s second leg assumes huge proportions. Not merely for United, but for the embattled Moyes.
Their match-going supporters have been admirably, incredibly steadfast in their support for him. It has been a badge of honour for them to back a floundering manager.
The sense, though, is that patience is being exhausted, that belief is disappearing. If United exit Europe, it may be the day the fans turn on Moyes.
Even when results are not forthcoming, loyalists look for reasons to believe better days are around the corner. United have offered too few to expect anything other than further misery.
A shell-shocked Moyes stated he did not see Tuesday’s “level of performance coming.” Yet while United were unacceptably poor, others did.
They have delivered so many lamentable displays in 2014 alone – against Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City, Sunderland, Stoke City and Fulham – that another should have been no surprise.
United’s Greek tragedy, the day they came Acropolis, was all too predictable.
It highlighted the flaws in Moyes’ management, the safety-first, two-banks-of-four type of thinking that prompted him to select his two most defensively-aware wingers, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, who contributed virtually nothing going forward, and omit the precocious Adnan Januzaj.
United played at a tempo that suggested they thought they were taking the sting out of the game. Actually, they were ponderously slow, lacking intensity or purpose. It was all too familiar.
They have rarely played at pace all season. Ageing legs and various central midfield combinations shorn of speed do not permit it. The only thing United have done swiftly is decline.
It is strange to think that nine of Moyes’ starting 11, including the entire, much-derided midfield, began last season’s wins away at Chelsea and Manchester City.
Those, however, came under Ferguson. The biggest difference, beyond even the introduction of Chris Smalling for his Bambi-on-ice display of disastrous defending in Greece, came in the dugout.
The feeling was always that Moyes needed time – indeed, judging from his record at Everton, that he would improve with time – but repeated exposure to the Scot has made United worse.
Their season peaked in November, with the hard-fought victory over Arsenal, the 5-0 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen and a 12-game unbeaten run. Since then, they have regressed alarmingly.
Like Swansea and Sunderland before them, Olympiacos threaten to be unheralded underdogs who eliminate United from knockout competitions. The various cups threaten to be of little consolation.
Their pursuit of fourth place is already effectively over. So March 19 may be the day their season ends.
Perhaps it may be Moyes’ only season at Old Trafford.
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