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ManU, Moyes face acid test at Donetsk

FOX Soccer Daily: What is going on with Manchester United?
FOX Soccer Daily: What is going on with Manchester United?
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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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The fall from grace has been steep and acute. Succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson was never going to be easy, but almost two months into his maiden season as Manchester United manager, David Moyes has under-delivered even when graded on a curve.

The defending Barclays Premier League champions actually had a losing record in their preseason, their opponents, for the most part a grab-bag of Asian “XIs” and minnows. They managed to win their season opener, a 2-0 Community Shield victory over the relegated Wigan Athletic, and the 4-1 league win over Swansea City was encouraging enough.

But those wins were followed by a home draw with Chelsea and an away loss to Liverpool. Victories over newly-promoted Crystal Palace and Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League seemed to herald the end of a brief slump. But United took a savage 4-1 beating away to crosstown rivals Manchester City and, almost worse, a 2-1 loss at home to West Bromwich Albion last Saturday. Up against such malpractice, the 1-0 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup that interspersed those embarrassing defeats hardly consoled anyone.

Which brings us to the present, wherein United finds itself in the beginnings of a crisis. The decades-old air of superiority and on many days even invincibility has risen up in so much smoke.

Certainly, Moyes was handed a tough schedule to open up with, and the team he inherited was far from perfect. Nor, for that matter, was he able to land most of the players he had eyed in the transfer window to shore up his very thin midfield and aging back line -- starters Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are 34, 32 and 31, respectively. He managed to extract Marouane Fellaini from Everton, the club he’d just left himself, but the afro-ed Belgian midfielder has had trouble adjusting to the higher level.

Ferguson wasn’t exactly an overnight success at United either. It took him six and a half years to win his first league title and another six until his side was the best in Europe. But he’d inherited a squad of mid-table stock. Moyes didn’t. So a 12th place with a 2-3-1 record and an even goal difference -- their worst start since 1989, when Ferguson almost lost his job -- is hardly tolerable for a team that’s won 13 of the last 21 Premier League titles.

Nor, for that matter, is the assertion uttered by Moyes that United isn’t a contender in the UEFA Champions League. “To win the Champions League, you have to have five or six world class players,” he recently said. “We’ve not got that yet.” He hedged somewhat, thereafter, saying they do have experience and a few players that are in that category. A team of United’s stature, however, should always aspire to the highest, whether completely realistic or not.

Moyes, who was handpicked by Ferguson to take over, spent more than 11 years at Everton. So his mindset is somewhat understandable. He came from perpetually underfunded underdogs who had to make do with the scraps of others by being more clever and finding novel ways to win. He did this very well. But he commands a club of world renown now. And his attitude about the soccer world and his place in it has yet to follow suit.

His team struggles to consistently create chances -- it hasn’t scored a league goal from open play in 450 minutes; five times 90 minutes, in other words -- lending urgency to the search for a proper use for Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, whose attacking talents are badly needed.

United has reportedly promised Moyes a healthy $80 million transfer budget for the January transfer window. But that’s a long way off still, in soccer terms, meaning he will have to make do with what he has. The transition is a difficult one, he admits. Ferguson had been in charge since November of 1986, after all, longer than much of his squad had been alive. The handover, which was planned for long ahead of time, has been particularly painful though. And many changes and growing pains seem yet to come.

“It does mean I may have to take a few more blows, definitely,” Moyes recently told the English press. “Maybe even more than that. Maybe all season I have to take a few blows but I knew this was going to be the case because I was taking over from a great manager and it was always going to take time for me to get my own ways and chance things ‘round a little bit.”

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Against this backdrop United travels to Ukraine for their Champions League affair with Shakhtar Donetsk (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET) who are hardly rubes in continental competition. Stacked with promising Brazilians like Bernard, Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa, the Ukrainian side got out of its group with Juventus and Chelsea last year, stranding in the round of 16 -- as far as United got, incidentally. United’s star striker Robin van Persie is still injured and the Donbass Arena is a daunting place to play and a long way to travel to.

Moyes has a six-year contract, as clear a gesture of confidence as United could have given off. He isn’t going anywhere. But even if he may think this tournament unwinnable for United, the sorry state of his body of work in Manchester thus far means he sure could use a win.

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