Moyes to step cautiously into new surroundings

Posted by Musa Okwonga

"Softly, softly" is the phrase that springs to mind when thinking of David Moyes' probable approach to the UEFA Champions League. The Manchester United manager has never reached the group stages of the tournament before, having been denied at the doorstep by Villarreal in 2005 during his Everton days. Now, though, he's been bequeathed the key to the house, and the early signs are that he will tiptoe his way in.

The two biggest Premier League fixtures that Moyes has so far overseen -- at home to Chelsea and away to Liverpool -- have seen him take a conservative approach, his starting line-ups featuring those with the greatest experience of such occasions. This would explain, for example, his selection of Ryan Giggs at Anfield, a player whom Sir Alex Ferguson would routinely bring into the team at such times.

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Given that Giggs has struggled for form in his early outings, it seems likely that Moyes will persist with Ashley Young, who, though Moyes criticised him for diving against Crystal Palace on Saturday, is finally looking like he might have recovered some of the confidence that has been absent for much of the past year. On the other wing, we can probably also expect to see a start for Antonio Valencia who, though his final ball remains disconcertingly inaccurate, can always be relied upon for tireless movement and defensive discipline.

With the arrival of the new European campaign, there is the uncomfortable sense that Manchester United are slightly short in wide areas. The club have four men -- Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney -- who can play as central strikers in this tournament, but there is a lack of consistent invention from the flanks. This stands in stark contrast to, say, Real Madrid, who can point to Angel di Maria, or Bayern Munich, who have Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. This is potentially a concern because opposing teams, expecting relatively little threat from the wings, will look to dominate central midfield and then quickly work the ball out wide. This is, of course, why the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini this summer was absolutely vital, and why he can be expected to start this evening. Manchester United have struggled for fluidity, having failed to score from open play since the opening match of the season against Swansea, and it is to be hoped that Fellaini's defensive solidity will allow Michael Carrick to create play slightly higher up the pitch.

Manchester United do have players who can provide both width and devastating performances, but they either cannot or should not be relied upon to do so. Nani, in terms of sheer talent, is in the same bracket as anyone on the playing staff of Europe's top teams, but few people, let alone the man himself, seem certain of what he will produce from match to match. It would make sense if he were given a run of matches in months to come, and particularly in fixtures like these. He is one of the handful of footballers capable of such invention that, on balance, leaving him on the bench ultimately represents the greater risk.

On a similar note, Wilfried Zaha and Adnan Januzaj will have to wait for their chance. Januzaj is not in the team's Champions League squad, which is sensible given his inexperience; he will possibly be added to the side in the event that qualification is closer to being achieved. Zaha, having not yet appeared in the Premier League for his new team, would possibly be surprised to leave the bench tonight. It is unlikely, too, that Shinji Kagawa will feature, having been ruled out with flu against Everton.

What does this say about Moyes? Well, that he is probably right to be cautious. For all the criticism that he received after the 0-0 home draw against Chelsea -- he was castigated in some quarters for defending the stalemate in the closing stages -- the headlines would have been far worse had he lost his first league game at Old Trafford. Tonight, the pressure is only marginally lighter, as he becomes the first new manager to lead Manchester United into Europe for over a quarter of a century. History will be stalking the touchline tonight as much as anything else.

Moreover, this isn't the match in which to bring out the bunting. Bayer Leverkusen, managed by the former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, will prove to be obdurate opponents, featuring finesse in midfield -- most notably, through Germany international Lars Bender -- and the counterattacking guile of Son Heung-Min.

Essentially, they are a far more dangerous form of SC Braga, the Portuguese opponents Manchester United found so troublesome at Old Trafford last season. Given Leverkusen's third-place finish in the Bundesliga in the most recent campaign, and their strong start to this one -- having won four games from five -- they are due a measure of respect. Moyes will almost certainly pay it; and his team's victory, by a single goal, seems the likeliest outcome here.


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