Manchester United can move within touching distance of a place in the Champions League knockout phase if they can get the better of Real Sociedad at the Anoeta on Tuesday. For their opponents, anything less than a win will realistically bring their hopes of progress to an end.
Early qualification will certainly be a welcome fillip for new United manager David Moyes in order to allow him to put greater focus on making up lost ground in the Premier League after a stuttering start to the domestic season. Curiously, given Moyes’s lack of experience in European competition, it has so far been in the Champions League where United’s best performances have come this season.
A 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday One featured defensive errors at both ends, but encouraging signs for United’s attack. Another defensive mishap led to the Premier League champions conceding a late equalizer against Shakhtar Donetsk, but a disciplined performance still secured a credible point in Ukraine. Then two weeks ago at Old Trafford, United produced their best attacking display of the season in the second half as Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney combined time and again in impressive fashion and should have yielded more than a single-goal victory over Sociedad.
The victory started a run in which United have now won four matches in a row and dampened the criticisms of Moyes early reign. Yet, it would be folly to conclude at this stage that a corner has been turned. Indeed, United have yet to put in a complete performance thus far this season. Even what appeared to be a comfortable 3-1 win over Fulham on Saturday saw United drop off alarmingly after firing in three early goals against inept opponents. Their laissez-faire attitude after the break allowed Fulham back into the match and a better side would surely have taken greater advantage.
Part of the problem is that Moyes does not yet know his best team. Do Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand remain his first-choice center-backs, despite age and injuries showing signs of catching up with both? Marouane Fellaini has made a poor start to life at Old Trafford and has not been helped by a wrist injury that Moyes has postponed surgery on despite the Belgian not starting any of the last four matches. Further forward, the Scot has alternated between Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj on the left of an attacking midfield three, neither of whom look particularly at home there, especially with Moyes’ propensity toward getting crosses into the box. It was always going to take the former Everton boss time to make his mark on a squad that wasn’t as talented as their recent success suggested and there remains much work to be done.
At the Anoeta, Manchester United are likely to face a tougher challenge from Sociedad than they did at Old Trafford. Sociedad may be without a point from their first three matches in the group, but the full story isn’t quite as bleak. At home to Shakhtar, Sociedad had more possession and more than twice as many shots but finished empty-handed, as they did at Bayer Leverkusen when they were sunk by an injury-time goal. And against United, ultimately it was only an own goal after just 69 seconds that separated the teams.
Sociedad have also improved as the season has gone along; something which shouldn’t be surprising for a team that lost its coach and best player in the summer. Following a run of seven games without a win in La Liga, Sociedad have won three out of their last four, including a 5-0 destruction of Osasuna on Saturday. Antoine Griezmann has been key to that run with six goals in that time and will be the main threat to United on Tuesday with his runs cutting in from the left flank.
Sociedad have been solid at home this season, and should be able to secure a draw that likely will ultimately do the visitors more favors.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 1-1 Manchester United
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.