United victory takes heat off David Moyes – but for how long?

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Updated: March 20, 2014

If ever one man needed a result, it was David Moyes on Wednesday evening. Battered and bruised, the Manchester United boss has endured a torrid first season in the Old Trafford hotshot and went into the second leg of his side’s Uefa Champions League clash against Olympiakos knowing defeat could very well make his position untenable.

Yet as Moyes walked into the post-match press conference after United had overcome a 2-0 first leg deficit to progress to the quarter finals of the competition, the release of pressure was clearly etched across the face of the 50-year-old Scot.

It was United’s best performance of the season, backing up Moyes’ pre-game assertion that his players would give everything they had in an effort to rectify the shocking display witnessed three weeks earlier in Athens, and one which belied the suggestion that the team were not fully behind their beleagured manager.

Nonetheless, Moyes refused to get carried away with the 3-0 triumph when asked if it marked a “watershed” moment in his eight-month reign, quite sensibly erring on the side of caution. This was understandable, after all there have already been a string of false starts this season, however, the United boss could also be excused for feeling somewhat vindicated in his team selection.

Ryan Giggs was brought into the side to replace the ineligible Juan Mata, and the 40-year-old duly rolled back the years to put in a man-of-the-match performance. Giggs’ pace may have subsided, however he retains a fantastic range of pass and dictated much of the tempo against the Greeks.

Then there was Robin van Persie. The rumours have been rife in recent weeks, suggesting a rift between the Dutch striker and his manager would end in a summer exit, however van Persie responded by smashing in a devastating hat trick to provide a timely reminder of his world class talent. Wayne Rooney was also in dominant form giving ample reason, if any were still needed, that United’s future rebuilding must centre around the Liverpudlian.

For all the verve and tempo however, United looked vulnerable in defence and were undone on more than one occasion by an Olympiakos attack led by Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell. The Costa Rican faces an uncertain future at the Emirates, having been out on loan since joining Arsenal in 2011, however his pace laid bare the inherent frailties that exist in the United backline.

Despite clinching their 41st domestic league title last week, their 16th in 18 seasons, Olympiakos are no European giant. Having lost their previous 11 visits to England, Michel’s side could, at best, be described as respectable opposition – a team that would have surely provided few problems for Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Yet just one goal for the visitors in the closing stages would have sent United crashing out, such are the fine margins Moyes is currently operating under. That fact was not lost on many,  leaving the overwhelming sense that United could be horribly exposed by an opponent of true quality, who they are sure to face in the next round.

The question is now one of continuity. United travel to Upton Park on Saturday to face a West Ham side that are positioned perilously close to the Premier League dogfight, before welcoming title-chasing neighbours Manchester City to Old Trafford on Tuesday.

David Moyes maintains he is under no pressure from his employers, but that is surely wishful thinking. The insistence that he will be given time to rebuild the squad, similar to that afforded to Ferguson almost three decades ago, is only partially correct, the fact that United gave him a six-year-contract not as significant as it may seem.

Moyes will only be given time should he provide enough evidence that the team are moving in the right direction under his tutelage, that he has a vision and plan. The uncomfortable truth however, is that United have taken a huge step backwards since Ferguson retired at the end of last season. There has been little to no cohesion in their performances, and little tactical nuance shown by Moyes to suggest he knows how to turn it around.

Questions remain over the wisdom of spending £26 million on midfielder Marouane Fellaini, a player Moyes quite obviously knows better then most. While Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese international who played such an influential role in Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back Bundesliga triumphs in 2011 and 2012, seems surplus to requirements.

If United are in transition, as most agree they are, Moyes must show he is the right man to oversee that change. With Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra set to leave Old Trafford in the summer, and Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand reaching the end of their careers, United’s younger players have never been so important.

The likes of Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling must provide the nucleus of Moyes’ rebuilding, however some would argue that those players have all regressed under their new manager. Cleverley in particular has had a completely forgettable campaign.

There was evidence of change on Wednesday however. Jones, bar one early mistake, was solid, while Welbeck displayed an extra yard of pace that has been sorely lacking in recent weeks. If Moyes can get increased consistency out of those players, United’s future will start to look just a little bit brighter.

The win over Olympiakos was one that was demanded by both David Moyes and United supporters, and the players, in most part, delivered. What direction the side now take could define Moyes’ future at the club. The debacle of last weekend’s 3-0 humiliation at the hands of Liverpool is fresh in the memory and one victory does not change that.

There were positives on Wednesday however, and David Moyes will have woken this morning with a little less weight of the world on his shoulders. The United boss must now hope his side do not revert to type for the remainder of the season, for that may very well signal the end of his time at Old Trafford. 

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