Champions League

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United falls flat in European stinker

Recap of Manchester United's draw vs. Real Sociedad.
Recap of Manchester United's draw vs. Real Sociedad.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

Critics who say that David Moyes is too naturally cautious and tactically immature to take Manchester United to Champions League glory this season got plenty more ammunition in Wednesday's drab goalless draw at Real Sociedad.

Beforehand the local papers in San Sebastian were full of stories hoping for a magical European night, and photos of visiting stars such as Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie staying in the city’s beachfront Hotel Cristina, long frequented by former Hollywood legends from Elizabeth Taylor to Woody Allen during city's distinguished film festival each September.

But the game itself turned out to be a stinker. La Real, who needed to win to have any chance of progressing from the group, played way too cautiously throughout. United, despite looking the better team in patches, also kept the handbrake on as if also afraid of what might happen if they really attacked. Such negativity on both sides lead to a game of few chances, little excitement, and just two shots on target all night.

This was United’s third season in a row visiting Spain -- they were beaten at Athletic Bilbao two seasons ago in the Europa League, then drew at Real Madrid in the Champions League last season but still ended up exiting the competition.

It could be argued that, with the other Group A game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayer Leverkusen also finishing goalless, United’s draw on Tuesday night meant they remain in control of their own destiny in this season’s gala European competition. But in fairness to the former Everton boss he did not try and claim his team had played well when he faced the press after the game.

“I see it as a missed opportunity,” Moyes said. “We had some good chances in second half especially, and I felt we could have got all three points tonight.”

Those second half chances mostly came when Shinji Kagawa was involved in the play. The Japanese playmaker had started the game on the left wing, and only been involved intermittently early, but moved more centrally during the second period and became the game’s most influential player -- adding the creativity and offensive thinking which neither Ryan Giggs nor Marouane Fellaini offered.

Rooney looked sharp early, but soon faded into the game’s general malaise. Worse was Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who had a night to forget. The Mexican forward was pretty anonymous until around the hour mark, when he drew attention to himself by somehow scooping the ball over the crossbar from just six yards when a smart Kagawa pass had taken the goalkeeper out of the equation.

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“The miss was an opportunity, I think it bobbled up to be fair to Chicho,” was Moyes again trying to put a shine on things.

Chicharito was soon taken out of his misery by Moyes, with van Persie entering in his place and his movement and positioning immediately improving the visitors’ game. The Dutchman almost opened the scoring with his first touch -- hammering a shot off the past from a narrow angle, and soon had an even better chance as fellow substitute Ashley Young secured another penalty with a pretty outrageous fall inside the box.

Justice was done -- both in that Young’s effort did not deserve rewarding and that the game did not deserve a goal -- when van Persie hit the post for a second time from the spot. That incident finally seemed to bring the game to life however, with the home fans greeting the miss with a huge cheer and their team finally realizing they needed to go for it. United’s veteran central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who had been comfortable until then, began to suffer.

A shot from txuri-urdin substitute Xabi Prieto which flew just over brought gasps from the home fans, and there were groans when a free header from Inigo Martinez floated wide. But even when Fellaini capped another disappointing showing with a second yellow card, the home side could not take advantage.

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The Basques’ coach Jagoba Arrasate, whose switches during the game included removing his leading scorer Antoine Griezmann with time running out and his team needing a goal, claimed afterwards that the result had actually not been too bad for his side.

“We must value the point here against a great rival,” he said. “We would like to have done everything better, but one of our objectives was to remain alive in the competition. We must go to Donetsk and win. So the point can be a positive.”

Arrasate was one of the few leaving Anoeta having taken much from the game. This was a chance for Moyes and United to grab a hold of the group and ensure qualification. They did not even try to take it.

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