Moyes desperate to convince against direct title rivals
Derby has potential to turn boss's bright start into a shaky one, writes Paul Wilson
In spite of an opening programme so tough that David Moyes wanted to check whether the fixture computer had been nobbled, Manchester United's first month under new management has gone well enough. The scoreline against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek could and should have been even more emphatic, and on the home front United go into this afternoon's derby level on points with their neighbours and rivals after four games each.
Considering that Chelsea or Manchester City were most people's picks as potential title-winners this season, and that few were expecting such impressive starts from Liverpool and Arsenal, United are more or less where they need to be. In touch.
Yet since the magnificent dismantling of Swansea on the opening day, United have only won one more league game, at home against Crystal Palace, and they made hard work of that. The two games in between, the "tough" early fixtures Moyes complained about against Chelsea and Liverpool, produced a scoreless draw and a defeat. In the mini-league that will form around the top six or so, United have just one point from two games. The fact that they are still in touch with Chelsea and City merely mirrors the reality that those two sides, also under new management, have started the season relatively poorly.
So although Moyes feels he will shortly be able to able to breathe more easily, with the demanding first month out of the way, he might not quite be out of the woods yet. Should City win today their mini-league return would be three points from one game, whereas Moyes would be left with one point from three.
That would not appear to be such a bright start after all, and though Moyes could look on the positive side and argue three of the most testing games of the season were already out of the way, it would be hard to ignore the fact that United had not convinced against their direct title rivals.
Today's derby, in other words, will determine whether United have made a good start or a shaky one. Beat Manchester City, and Moyes will find the other two results being overlooked. Lose to City, and Moyes will see all his previous failures at top-four grounds coming back to haunt him, while Manuel Pellegrini will be judged to have turned a corner after a stuttering start.
If anything, City were worse than United in suffering defeat in Cardiff, boring the pants off their own supporters against Hull and collecting a point they barely deserved at Stoke. Like United they too have struggled to hit the heights since the opening weekend. But City are at home and derby games have a life of their own. Ask anyone present at City's 6-1 humbling of United at Old Trafford two years ago, including Alex Ferguson.
A result such as that can set the tone for the rest of the season.
Ferguson at that stage had two decades of solid success at United behind him, yet suddenly he was transported back to Maine Road in September 1989, when, still struggling to win over his Manchester public, he was left speechless by a 5-1 derby defeat. "I went back home and closed the curtains," he said. "I felt like a criminal."
There is every reason for Moyes to feel confident about going to City, because his Everton team used to beat them on a regular basis, but as Pellegrini pointed out rather mischievously, that counts for little now he is at United. "I know he had a good record with Everton against City, but with Villarreal I have a good record against him," the City manager said, poking Moyes exactly where it hurts. "These are two of the teams that will challenge, so it is a six-point game and an important one. We have had a good start but not as good as we want. We still need to improve but winning helps you do that."
Moyes believes United can make good use of a not-so-secret weapon. A short, stocky guy last seen wearing a headband. "We lost at Liverpool but we didn't play badly, and people forget we were without Wayne Rooney because he had gashed his forehead," Moyes said. "Now he is back, and you can see his partnership with Robin van Persie is working.
"These things take a little time, but we want to try and make it a partnership that opponents find tough to play against. I don't want to exclude Chicharito [Javier Hernandez] or Danny Welbeck, because Wayne and Robin won't be able to play in all the games, but when they are both in form that is a really difficult partnership to play against.
"Anyone coming up against those two in the Premier League will have a concern. There are other really good centre-forwards in the league but those two together would give any defence a dilemma. They could be lethal.
"I think the two of them could easily be 20-goal-a-season players, and if we can achieve that it will go a long way in deciding where we finish at the end of the season."
After the derby this theory can be put to the test against Liverpool in the League Cup. This time United will be at home, Rooney should be available, and Moyes may well name a full-strength side. But so might Liverpool, for whom Luis Suarez will at last be eligible.
Moyes has history with Suarez, and a Merseyside derby last season featured a comedy dive for the Everton manager's benefit, but the Scot bears no grudges. "I think Luis Suarez is a really good footballer, I always have," he said.
"It's a tough draw for us after a tough start and if Suarez plays it won't make it any easier. He might be a controversial character but you have to admire his footballing ability."
Manchester City v Manchester Utd, Sky Sports 1, 4.0