Sunday, January 19, 2014

Manchester can one day become the city of David

"We want you to stay," sang the Matthew Harding Stand ironists, "David Moyes - we want you to stay."

As if the Manchester United manager didn't have enough to contend with, he now had Stamford Bridge's resident smartarses mocking the likelihood of a dejected Moyes throwing in the towel. The same wags who, 12 months ago, were leading the calls of "You're just a fat Spanish waiter" towards Rafa Benitez.

For Moyes you can't help but feeling sorry. Not an easy sentence to write that, after my years of recriminative bile aimed at Manchester United and the puce Scotsman who did his level best to annoy all around him, while leading the club to an unprecedented 22 league titles.

Bereft of the troubled Wayne Rooney and the motivationally questionable Robin van Persie, and with club captain Nemanja Vidic and the similarly relative veteran Patrice Evra ageing before our very eyes, it is clear what ails Manchester United this season. You could see it in Vidic's half-hearted efforts to gee up his colleagues in the United backline, as Chelsea's quixotic midfielders, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian ran rings around them, while Samuel Eto'o - himself a shadow of the once breathtaking talent at Barcelona - pulled off a hat-trick of audacious cheek.

But perhaps the greatest insult to Moyes' pride came four minutes before Phil Dowd blew his whistle for a final time, when José Mourinho, who had clearly seen enough, headed for the tunnel with a jaunty skip, not before throwing a consoling arm around his opposite number's slumping shoulder.

Chelsea's defeats at the hands of Manchester United have left a long and stinging tail. My teeth still grind at the memory of 1994’s 4-0 FA Cup Final humiliation, one I had to endure twice - once at the old Wembley Stadium, and again when I turned up for a night shift at Teletext to find the day shift editor I was taking over from was a rampant Manchester United fan, patently beside himself with glee as I walked up the steps to the mezzanine-level newsroom.

But there was something weird and pale in the victory this afternoon at Stamford Bridge. This wasn't the capricious Manchester United of old, but a misshapen collective lacking cohesion in some places, experience in others, and the sort of bag of tricks that Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to refresh whenever the fancy took him.

Many have scratched their heads over how SAF could lead more or less the same team to their 22nd title at a canter and yet barely eight months later they are looking ragged. But let's entertain the ridiculous here: Fergie spent much of his final couple of seasons resolutely maintaining that he wouldn't be retiring just yet. And then he just did. Is it just possible that the wily old git saw the end coming for the squad he'd evolved? All good things come to an end - just ask Liverpool at the beginning of the 1990s. And even the juggernaut that has been Manchester United, winning titles and outspending its rivals on the biggest and the best, can't go on forever.

Not that it's over. But with Manchester City scoring goals for fun, Arsenal defying expectations and hanging on to the Premier League top spot, and the wily Mourinho underpinning a pragmatic Chelsea that is maintaining pace with the league leaders, while Liverpool are at least keeping in touch with Champions League places, the playing field has been leveled this season, with Manchester United reduced to mere competitors, as opposed to swaggering champions-elect.

Talk of David Moyes getting the sack is, quite frankly, ludicrous. He"ll do fine, I'm sure. But, first, he needs to spend to replace the aged legs, instill the self-confidence and cohesive discipline so obviously lacking, and find a way to nurture the junior talent that could be the core of Manchester United's next golden generation.

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