For many Manchester United FC fans, this season has been something of a journey into the unknown – namely into the world most other football supporters inhabit. Longer-serving Reds will recall the days before Sir Alex Ferguson turned United into a trophy-winning machine but others will not. Tuesday night's showdown with Manchester City FC brings another of these strange new experiences: a derby where City, not United, need the points in their pursuit of the Premier League title.
This is not to underplay the significance for United, though – nor indeed what a win could mean for their own season. Many people have already written off their chances of further UEFA Champions League progress after the quarter-final draw pitted them against holders FC Bayern München.
However, if they can get the better of Manuel Pellegrini's side, it would be an important statement from David Moyes's men. After a campaign where each step forward seems to have been followed by two back, success against the noisy neighbours would provide a massive shot of confidence.
A week after the miserable capitulation against rivals Liverpool FC, there are already green shoots of recovery showing at Old Trafford after victories over Olympiacos FC and West Ham United FC. True, these are sides that a strong United team would ordinarily expect to beat, yet in an extraordinary season, where the old certainties have flown out of the Old Trafford window, they are not to be sniffed at.
Olympiacos's poor record in England offered a lifeline yet United still had to grab it by scoring three goals. They then went and won comfortably at West Ham, their 2-0 victory marked by a Wayne Rooney strike from the halfway line which revived memories of a certain David Beckham goal and led The Times to suggest this morning: "United find their swagger in time to host neighbours."
Beating City, of course, is a considerably tougher task and United have won just one of ten games against the six sides above them in the Premier League. "We want to perform better in the bigger games than we have done," admitted Moyes on Monday, though he has sensed a positive momentum shift. "If we play with the same heartbeat we showed against Olympiacos then we'll be very hard to play against and have a big spirit in the game."
Whatever happens in the derby, it is worth considering one curiosity of Moyes's first season at the club: United's 100% home record in Europe. In the domestic competitions they have lost six times at Old Trafford but under Moyes – whose UEFA Champions League inexperience was supposed to be the big question mark against his succession – they have put together their best run of home results since their triumphant 2007/08 campaign.
Strange things happen in cup competitions and while it is easy to understand those dismissing United's prospects against Bayern, it is also worth recalling Liverpool and Chelsea FC's UEFA Champions League triumphs of 2005 and 2012. Both teams struggled in the Premier League, finishing outside the UEFA Champions League places, yet found improbable redemption in Europe. For the record, after 30 league fixtures, Liverpool had 47 points in 2005 and Chelsea 50 points in 2012. United's total after their 30th league game on Saturday? Fifty-one.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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