Holy Grail turns into sanctuary

Posted by Mark Payne

The storm clouds around Old Trafford have been intense and brooding of late. David Moyes, a man of faith, has appropriately found solace in Manchester United's Holy Grail, the Champions League. Although nobody thinks United could win it without seriously bucking their ideas up, the competition may still provide plenty of cheer this season. United need it.

Sir Alex Ferguson was a "league title first" kind of a guy. He built his reputation on overthrowing the Old Firm in Scotland and then crushing Liverpool in England. Other managers prefer to specialise in cup competitions. A notable example of this is Rafael Benitez, and old foe of Fergie's, who has won several cups without challenging for many titles.

"Any trophy will do," answered Sir Alex when asked about the expectations for Moyes's first season. It is unlikely he meant the Champions League when making this comment but, as things stand, Moyes has much more chance of winning that than the English league title.

In the round of sixteen United could possibly play Galatasaray, who boast Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder and are bossed by ex-City manager Roberto Mancini. United have again been linked with Sneijder but it seems unlikely he will come to the club at this juncture. The Turkish side shared two tight games against United last year and an intriguing encounter could ensue.

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Alternatively, Olympiakos, FC Schalke and Zenit St. Petersburg are also in the pot. Zenit qualified from the group with only six points, the lowest ever points tally for a qualifier, and would be a good team to draw. Neither Olympiakos or FC Schalke set Europe on fire in the last three months.

As United cannot face any other English opposition, the only other side they could meet are a flailing AC Milan. Milan are one of the most successful clubs in European history but are having a nightmare at the moment. They sit ninth in Serie A and could easily have been eliminated from the Champions League this week.

"It could have been better at times but thankfully we got the win. [It was] win at all costs -- after the last two games we knew it was vital," said Rooney as United squeaked past Shakhtar midweek.

"The campaign has been good this year in Europe so we just have to try and get that consistency in all our games, whether it is Europe or the Premier League," he added. With things so gloomy on the home front, the win on the bigger stage was even more succulent.

"We got a good result and if you'd have said beforehand that we'd win the game after the last two results, we'd have certainly taken that."

For the time being, they have to take it. United remain several points and places away from anything useful in the league, so European progress is their only laurel, but there must be no rest.

While it is good news for all concerned that United are through, the team's form in the league now needs to be rectified, immediately. With the group stage out of the way, there is nowhere else to hide now. By the time the Champions League comes back into the picture, it needs to be a challenge for United, not a hiding place.

Mark Payne is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.

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