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United stumbles from crisis to crisis

WALKING DEAD
Manchester United is stumbling from crisis to crisis.
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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON

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The last thing David Moyes needed, as he contemplated the semblance of a crisis Manchester United have encountered just months into his reign as coach, was the picture that appeared on the front page of a national newspaper this week.

It showed Chris Smalling, supposedly the defender most likely to provide a solution to the joint physical decline of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, slumped at a fancy-dress party wearing a suicide-bomber outfit adorned with brands of drink – one of them highly alcoholic – instead of standard explosive.

No doubt there was some subtlety involved in the costume. No doubt Smalling, who held the party in his home, didn’t intend that a photo should get into the public domain. But he must have heard of cellphone cameras and Facebook. The image that registered with readers was of Moyes surrounded by a squad of nitwits as he endeavours to improve United’s form in the second half of the Premier League season.

Already they have lost six games out of 20. With four tied, this means the best supported club in the land have won just half of their games so far. And another loss in the first leg of their Capital One Cup clash at Sunderland in midweek means they’ll have to come from behind to reach the final of their fourth-rated competition they entered.

It’s the only one they now have a realistic chance of winning – and even to say that implies that they can realistically hope to achieve a Wembley triumph over local rivals Manchester City, whose majestic form continued with a 6-0 victory over West Ham in the other first leg, rendering the return at Upton Park next to meaningless.

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United have also been knocked out of the FA Cup. Swansea, who did that last weekend, will make a swift return to Old Trafford on Saturday knowing they are capable of another win. Even if they take one point, the impression of United impotence will be enhanced, and Moyes, though still protected to an extent by the firm hand of Sir Alex Ferguson in his appointment, can expect audible rumblings of discontent.

Ferguson’s idea in directing the ruling Glazer family to hire Moyes was that his fellow Scot, with whom he got on well throughout Moyes’s 11 much-lauded years at Everton, would provide continuity, especially if ageing or retired players such as Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes joined the coaching staff. That was done. But where’s the continuity?

The free-flowing attack and never-say-die spirit of the Ferguson era – at least of its last 20 years – appears a thing of the past as United, their confidence ebbing week by week, sink below even inconsistent Tottenham, one of their conquerors at Old Trafford, into seventh place, unsure of whether they can qualify for next season’s Europa League, let alone the Champions League that has come to seem part of the club’s birthright.

Whatever happens between now and the spring, most people expect Moyes to start the next campaign with United. He has the insurance of both Ferguson’s stamp of approval and a six-year contract. He is likely to get a chance to shoot United back into the Champions League (assuming they don’t qualify) with a team unquestionably his own. And that means big, big buying in the two relevant windows.

One is open now and Moyes has already indicated that not much business will be done in January, when players at the level he seeks – the likes of Cesc Fabregas, whom he failed to lure from Barcelona last summer - are chasing the top prizes with their current clubs. So it’s going to be a long, hot summer and, for him, the World Cup might be an unwelcome complication.

There is a theory that he won’t get the right players if he can’t offer Champions League soccer. I’m not sure about that, but for sure it will get a whole lot harder to attract people to Old Trafford than when Ferguson beckoned Robin van Persie to come from Arsenal and fill his trophy cabinet. What Moyes will have to do is get smarter, identify the guys who like a challenge.

They can be found. Liverpool got one when they went to Holland and signed Luis Suarez. His mission was to take them back into the Champions League and, despite the troubles of recent seasons, he looks a good bet to complete that task at the end of the season. Suarez is the kind of character Moyes needs. But, if the Uruguayan does leave Liverpool, it will surely be for Real Madrid rather than United.

It’s only a straw for United’s worried fans to cling to, but, since Moyes is going to have to save his regime in the transfer market, he did have a brilliant record in this respect at Everton. He signed Tim Cahill for less than $2 million, picked up a bargain goalkeeper (from United) in Tim Howard and made a five-fold profit on Joleon Lescott. England defender Phil Jagielka was captured for barely $6 million.

All he has to do is add a zero to that price range, double it – and perform as well. It just might be as simple as that.

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