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United looking like United of old

Laugh it off
Despite an unstable start to the season, Rooney and Moyes now have reason to smile.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It’s been almost two months since Manchester United last lost a game. And if the din of alarm bells going off is still ringing in your ears from that wretched 2-3-1 (W-L-T) start to the Premier League season, it ought to abate any time now.

Sure, things aren’t perfect. Before the Red Devils take on Bayer Leverkusen in Champions League action on Wednesday (live, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET) United blew a late lead to newly promoted Cardiff City on Sunday and settled for the draw. And of the four league games won out of five before then -- wedged around a tie with Southampton -- three came against lowly Sunderland, Stoke City and Fulham. Sixth place, meanwhile, is hardly prime Premier League real estate for a club of this magnitude when it’s almost December and the time for excuses has long since run out. And the team suffered a rocky ride just to get to this game.

The good news is that the crisis of sorts that followed on almost immediately from David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson and his 27-year reign this summer, is over. Three losses in four back in September -- two of them, horror of horrors, coming against Liverpool and Manchester City -- seemed to spell disaster for the Moyes era.

But United stayed the course. It’s what they’ve done for nearly three decades. It’s what’s served them well. And it’s probably what Ferguson, who still looms in the background as a director, likely told them to do.

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A few years ago, when asked what the key behind the longevity of United’s success was, Ferguson told me it existed by the grace of continuity. This is a tricky thing to achieve in a hair-trigger business, where three games can end a job or even a career. But if you turn the trick, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ferguson, he explained, was able to cope with difficulties because he and his staff had coped with them before. Just about anything that came at them, they’d faced down at least once already.

Moyes was selected for the job for his eerie resemblance to Ferguson; not merely the working class Glasgow origins and the demanding and disciplinarian personality, but the track record of long-term success, consistency and prosperity at an unfancied club. And like Ferguson, he persevered with his methods in a time of adversity.

And so United figured things out. While many of Ferguson’s problems persist -- they’re thin in central midfield and old in the back -- they are 6-0-4 since the start of October, and if the playing product hasn’t looked terribly pretty -- especially in the 1-0 win over Arsenal -- Wayne Rooney is rejuvenated and the all-important calm, both on and off the field, has returned.

At 21 points from a dozen games, the Red Devils now sit just three points below Liverpool and Chelsea, who share second place. Wednesday, meanwhile, offers United the chance to make some headway in their European campaign. An away win over Bayer Leverkusen will ensure a place in the round of 16 with one group stage game to spare.

They’ll have to make do without striker, talisman and frequent savior Robin van Persie, who will miss his second game in a row with a groin injury. And they’ll have to overcome that harrowing experience on their way over, when their landing was cut short just 400-some yards off the ground of the Cologne airport when another aircraft was found to be on the runway. An unfortunate incident to happen to United of all clubs, the very one that saw eight players and 15 others perish when their plane crashed in Munich back in 1958 -- the infamous Munich Air Disaster.

Nevertheless, soccer will be played. And Leverkusen is an arduous opponent. With a 10-2-1 record, they sit second in the German Bundesliga, only four points behind undefeated Bayern Munich, and ahead of European runners-up Borussia Dortmund. They are a hardy bunch, built around domestic talent like Stefan Kiessling, Lars Bender and Sidney Sam.

Overcome the Germans, however -- or, alternatively, beat Shakhtar Donetsk at home on Dec. 11 -- and United’s campaign is very much on track. Their European chances will be as strong as anybody’s, mathematically anyway, and their entire attention can be devoted to the league, where everything remains to be played for, until the middle of February when the Champions League knockout rounds begin.

All they have to do, as ever, is stay the course.

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