It is traditional, in circumstances like this, to look for the counterintuitive. To search for reasons why the impossible might be possible. And United's daunting first leg against Bayern Munich tonight is no exception: Eurosport have a video giving five reasons that United fans should have hope, while the Independent, delving deep, have managed to find ten. Ten! Over on ESPN, meanwhile, Miguel Delaney has reminded everybody that knockout football is subject to the whimsies of "blind, wild luck," which is some comfort.
But excluding that last hope — which isn't really a hope at all; more an acknowledgement of humanity's inherent subordination to capricious forces that we cannot hope to comprehend — they are all, well, wrong. Manchester United are not going to win. Manchester United are going to lose. The real question, the only question, the definitely-in-no-way-an-attempted-reverse-jinx question is how are they going to lose? And what would such a loss do to the flailing, drowning experiment that is 'David Moyes, Manchester United manager'?
The utter skelping
This is what the neutral's tuning in to see. Arjen Robben turning Alexander Büttner into marmalade. Franck Ribéry turning Phil Jones into slightly chunkier marmalade. Philipp Lahm fussing Wayne Rooney to death. Thomas Müller disappearing right in front of Rio Ferdinand's bemused face, reappearing on the other side, tapping the ball through David de Gea's legs, then running off with a giggle and mooning the Stretford End.
And it's certainly possible. Bayern are very, very good; United less so. The defence — which hasn't really earned its name for much of the season — is weighed down in equal measure by suspension, injury and inadequacy, the state of the midfield has progressed from tragedy to cliche and out the other side, and up front ... well, Wayne Rooney's been pretty good, and Danny Welbeck is adorable. So we'll give the attack a pass, since they won't be getting many this evening.
But. The funny thing about hammerings is that they don't always have an impact commensurate to their scale. Too many goals and a defeat turns into something inexplicable; less a simple failure of footballing ability, more a freakish confluence of circumstance and misfortune. The early red card did it, or the clutch of injuries, or the referee's unfair decision to allow them to have eleven players as well. Shipping six at home isn't normal. It must be something weird. And you can't blame the manager for something weird ...
The comfortable dismissal
... whereas he can and will be blamed, long and loud and hard and shrill, if this happens. Something like: a 0-3 defeat that involves an awful lot of Bayern possession, a first goal that comes from a defensive error, hardly any United attempts on goal, a considerable number of yellow cards acquired through desperation rather than cynicism or violence, a second goal that comes at the end of a glorious team move, a third that comes a minute later after a tired pass, a red card that only arrives in the last ten minutes, a fine-yet-futile performance from David de Gea, and somebody, Robben maybe, hitting the post.
The home defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City were humiliating not just in the identity of the opposition, but in the manner of the execution. They were defeats at the hands and feet of a group of footballers who looked quicker, stronger and smarter; who were in some vague and indefinable sense more modern in what they were doing. Tomorrow's football against yesterday's. That gap in quality and capacity was what Moyes's was driving at when he made those cackhanded comments about aspiring to play like City. At times, against the best teams, Moyes's boys have played like an overachieving FA Cup team being put firmly in their place by their biggers and betters. And they don't come any bigger and better than Bayern.
Should this turn out to be a classy, similarly comfortable dispatch on Bayern's part, then it'll be the third time in a month that the Old Trafford crowd will have sat and watched their side being clinically dissected. The real danger for Moyes is not that United lose, which as we have established is a certainty, but that United lose in a manner that makes his team look comfortably and fundamentally inferior. Again.
The narrow squeak
A doughty rearguard, a bit of luck, some great saves from De Gea. An opening goal from Danny Welbeck, after Manuel Neuer spills a Rooney punt. A bit of spirit, a bit of fight, perhaps some tactical cleverness that squashes some combination of Robben or Ribéry or Kroos. An ultimately futile exercise, yes, as Mario Mandzukic scuffs the equaliser in off a shin after 70 minutes, then David Alaba's deflected shot trickles past David de Gea just five short minutes later, but still. Something to shout about. Something to shout at.
It'd be a surprise. That it would be a surprise says a lot, not much of it good. One of the sadder aspects of the Moyesian reign has been the defeats, which have come with a general lack of defiance and cussedness, and an overwhelming air of meekness. It's been a good long while since United were such welcoming hosts, and if the team can change that tonight, then Moyes might just make it out of the evening in no greater bother than he is now. It might not be enough to see him into next season, of course, particularly since there's a second leg to come. But it'll make the watching that bit less painful.