I found it really hilarious how the English media had been gunning for Manchester United to win the Champions League, not only to save their season but to get back into the elite competition next season. An European title would have given David Moyes some real success in what has been a terrible first season for him.
But then I thought, Moyes is no football genius. A good comparison could be made to Liverpool’s 2004/05 season, where Valencia manager Rafa Benitez took charge for the first time. But unlike Moyes, the Spanish manager actually has a good track record winning trophies. His Valencia side of the early 2000s managed to be the only side to threaten and overhaul the Real Madrid-Barcelona domination in Spanish football, winning the La Liga twice in three seasons.
What has Moyes achieved? Nothing other than the Community Shield against Wigan Athletic in this season’s curtain raiser. He has won no League Cup, no FA Cup at Everton, only had one fourth place position on the much talked about ‘modest’ budget, and even then he got knocked out by Villarreal in the qualifying rounds. Fortunately for English football, newly minted Champions of Europe Liverpool was given an unprecedented extra slot into the competition and kept England’s status quo of four in the group stages, which is crucial to England’s UEFA coefficients. Even as this special arrangement meant the Reds had to play three two-legged qualifiers, they still managed to get into the group stage.
Look at what type of a side Benitez inherited from Gerard Houllier in 2004. Goalkeeper Scott Carson, left-back Djimi Traore (we still love him), defensive midfielder Igor Biscan, first-team youngsters Anthony Le Tallec, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor. An injury-ravaged season meant Benitez had to call upon John Welsh, David Raven and Darren Potter – prizes for those who can tell me where are they now. Benitez signed flops Josemi and Antonio Nunez (part-exchange for the outgoing Michael Owen).
Compare to the side Moyes inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side which finished Premier League Champions by 11 points last season. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, the best strike force from last campaign, backed up by Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Defenders Phil Jones, Rafael and Nemanja Vidic, as well as ever-improving goalkeeper David de Gea. Moyes also went out and spent £27million for Maourane Fellaini.
Liverpool’s road to Istanbul in 2005 after the group stages was not easy at all. The Reds faced a Bayer Leverkusen that had German internationals Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow, and a 24 year old once-United record signing Dimitar Berbatov. Admittedly, the Reds strolled to a 6-2 aggregate win. United’s class of 2014 faced a subpar Olympiakos side, that was without their topscorer Kostantinos Mitroglou, that managed to take a 2-0 lead to Old Trafford without really being any good. Moyes was only saved by a van Persie-inspired hat-trick in the 2nd leg.
Then in the quarters, the Reds faced a Juventus side featuring Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Emerson, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic and coached by Fabio Capello. Benitez had to deploy the likes of Le Tallec due to an injury crisis. Liverpool won 2-1 at Anfield thanks to a Sami Hyypia and Luis Garcia strike. When they went to Turin, they were without skipper Steven Gerrard yet managed to stop Juventus and went through to the semis.
Admittedly, Moyes faced Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering FC Bayern side. Yet the media, and United’s fans, players & managers, thought they could get through. What made the tie so much better was how United took the lead in both legs yet were immediately hit back by Bayern twice, crushing their dreams in an instant.
The Reds of 2005 then faced Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, which featured Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba. Mourinho’s assistants was ex-West Brom manager Steve Clarke, his opposition scout was ex-Chelsea and Tottenham manager Andre-Vilas Boas. Benitez held Chelsea to a 0-0 draw and ground out a 1-0 victory at Anfield. Both tactical masterclasses from Benitez.
And then in that famous final against the then all-conquering side A.C. Milan, which featured Dida, Cafu, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf, Hernan Crespo, Filipo Inzaghi and Andrey Shevchenko (I just named the whole team and two substitutes there), coached by Carlo Ancelotti.
Though Benitez got it horribly wrong in the first-half, leaving his midfield super exposed to Kaka’s brilliance, he switched it around to perfection in the second, bringing on Didi Hamann at half-time and the rest, as they say, was history.
So can you see why I laughed just a little at the thought of Moyes pulling off tactical plans that could overcome three two-legged ties against top-class European opposition, when he could not even inspire his team to victory at Old Trafford against the likes of Newcastle and Everton – teams that had not even won at Old Trafford for decades.
With Everton pushing on under Moyes’ replacement Roberto Martinez, Tottenham there and thereabouts in the mix, Chelsea stealing everyone else’s transfer targets, Manchester City eyeing every top player in Europe, Liverpool back on the rise under the prudent leadership of Brendan Rodgers, Arsene Wenger doing his usual 4th place thing with his Arsenal side, it will be an uphill task for United to even come back and challenge for 4th, let alone get back into the top 4, with 5 maybe 6 teams better than Moyes’ side.