Man United: We've Got Spirit, Even If It's All We Have
It is unlikely that Manchester United's performance against Bayern Munich, on Tuesday night, will be held up as an example of the 'United way,' in years to come. No one will ever suggest that future teams should draw on the 'spirit of 2014.'
Still, in a season during which fans suckled on flare and attacking verve have found themselves starved of purposeful play and thirsting for creativity, a hard-fought draw against Bayern Munich, at home, will have to do.
Manchester United were more work-horse than prize-stallion, on the night. It was a performance of graft and endeavour, with occasional glimpses of quality, as players who have been shadows of their former selves, for months, decided to turn up for another European night and surprise the watching world by not getting soundly thrashed.
The Old Trafford crowd relish these big European occasions and were determined to savour what could be the last one they get to witness, in the Theatre of Dreams, for goodness knows how long. The rather contrived mosaics, before kick-off looked good for the cameras but were hardly necessary, the crowd making this great stadium a cauldron of noisy defiance in the face of the most daunting of opposition.
It will never sit comfortably with those supporters to approach any home game as rank underdogs, yet this is the new world-order under the confidence-sapping, expectation-lowering stewardship of David Moyes. That is not to say that Ferguson was never cautious in this competition. Still, the last-ditch, backs-against-the-wall defending that was witnessed on Tuesday, was of an altogether new level of accepting an opposition's superiority.
Marouane Fellaini's presence made a mockery of the Champions League, his first half performance exposing him as the fraud he is at this elite level. Hopelessly out of his depth, he looked as lost and beset by fear as his manager has for much of the season, woefully under-qualified to face this standard of opposition.
The rest of the team, however, went about exposing Moyes' assertion that they are a poor, ageing bunch of has-beens as the failure-masking lie that it is. It is strange that, despite being unable to muster anything approaching a resistance against domestic rivals, the same players found enough talent and determination within themselves to take the lead against the European and recently re-crowned German champions. It is hard not to get the sense that they are now reserving anything approaching their best for the Champions League, alone, out of self-respect and a sense of duty to the fans, as opposed to loyalty to their struggling manager.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, one of whom has already signed for another club, the other almost certainly set to follow him out of Old Trafford, displayed the qualities that made them the best in the business over so many years. It was a brutal and poignant reminder that Moyes' decision to allow Vidic to simply walk away is folly of the highest order and screams of a player not prepared to see out the sunset of his career suffering incompetence.
When Vidic scored his contorted header, in the second half, to put United ahead, for a blissful moment we remembered what it is to be a Manchester United fan. The rush of joy; the surge of belief; the chest-swelling pride. A roar like the one that greeted that goal has not been heard in these parts for many a month, as strangers hugged strangers in a wonderful, cathartic, fist-pumping moment of magic.
Of course, a Bayern equaliser was inevitable, given the way in which Moyes' United tend to sit back and edgily defend slender leads. Yet, in contrast to when league goals have been conceded, of late, the crowd and the players refused to be cowed. For once, heads did not drop and the floodgates remained shut.
I left the stadium harbouring mixed feelings; overjoyed that United remain firmly in this tie, provided there is no Olympiakos-esque collapse in Munich, in the second leg, yet left wondering what could have been, had United played like Manchester United are meant to play. Caution is perfectly acceptable against the best Europe has to offer but to witness such a defensive, damage-limitation attitude makes me deeply uncomfortable.
After all, Danny Welbeck found himself one-on-one with Manuel Neuer when United actually strung a few passes together instead of desperately hoofing the ball out from the back. We will never know if a more positive and confident approach would have led to more chances like this.
Most United fans were expecting to be in a hopeless situation by this point, never dreaming that there would be a glimmer of hope for the second leg. The spirit of 2014 may not be the stuff of inspiration, but it's all we've got, so we'll take it.