Were Manchester United "cheating their manager" against Bayern Munich?

Shaun Botterill

Manchester United were good but not great against Bayern Munich, but why has their European form been so different to their performances on the domestic stage, and has the game changed anything for David Moyes?

Speaking to a Celtic fan about last season's victory over Barcelona, the dejected supporter had chosen to refer to it as "That wonderful night I now wish had never happened." For him, the triumph and the glory had now been overshadowed by it rendering the limited Neil Lennon as virtually unsackable, with all the subsequent misery that would follow.

Manchester United's clash against Bayern Munich could well have been the same scenario. While the teams appeared to be far more closely-matched, United were expected to be obliterated, and their opponents were widely regarded as the world's best but still in a slightly difficult moment where they could be vulnerable. The chance at immortality was there, but the chance was for David Moyes. A not-inconsiderable portion of United fans had taken to secretly harbouring hopes of defeats to hasten his downfall, and it would have been little surprise had some taken those hopes to the game against the European champions.

United failed, but the potentially masochistic atmosphere never materialised. The moment when Patrice Evra scored was for no man marred by the fact it had bolstered David Moyes. It was 22 seconds of sheer, unbridled glee the like of which had not been seen for several years. That was probably down to the goalscorer, the goal, and the emotion carrying supporters away and letting them forget the long-term, but for that very reason it was an affirmation of their support. For less than half a minute, Moyes didn't matter, just like any other problem people go to games to get away from, like work, money, or health.

Yet more crucially, the same seemed to be true of the players. Chris Smalling's aimless hoofs aside, the team seemed to play without the uncertainty, sloppiness or fear that had pock-marked the Moyes reign on the domestic stage. It could simply be that Moyes finally got his tactics right or won over his wayward charges. It could be that European nights are capable of psyching up even the most petulant refuseniks, or it might be that continental clubs were warier about going for the jugular as Liverpool and Manchester City were. For whatever reason, United looked like United.

For every team or player that is heralded for turning up in the big games, there can be a niggling question about such a tendency: does that mean they are then holding something back or not trying as hard as they might for meat-and-two-veg fixtures? Alex Ferguson famously accused Premier League clubs of trying harder against Manchester United, claiming that Leeds were "cheating their manager." Is the same now happening at Old Trafford?

Moyes' influence on both legs is easy to see. United were set up to defend and take their chances when they came. The fact that they successfully stymied Bayern's attacks and only really looked outclassed when the game had opened up in the madness after the rapid-fire exchange of goals in the second leg would seem to confirm that the strategy was a sound one. Unlike the Barcelona tie in 2008, this was a defensive United performance where the pragmatism was necessary. Equally, however, a tardiness to react to changing circumstances in the tie and some odd substitutions may also have reduced their chances.

Wayne Rooney aside, this was not a defeat that could be simply blamed on shocking individual performances as other league defeats had, yet in a way that is more forgivable. All blame ultimately rests at the doorstep of the manager, but one player fluffing two golden chances is less likely to be perceived as the gaffer's fault than his entire team turning up and playing like a bunch of disinterested, hungover strangers as they had in big domestic games.

It's odd, but far from beyond the realms of possibility, that a big game in Europe should fire up a team when a big game in England does not. There was an improvement in organisation from Moyes, and the team had been playing better in the league before, but the cycle of mild encouragement followed by crushing despair had been a common one all season. The result itself is not enough to suggest that Moyes can be a great manager, but given the situation in February, anyone who can avoid contributing to a downward spiral may just have something about them.

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