With Manchester United FC entering European competition without Sir Alex Ferguson for the first time since 1984/85, all eyes were on Old Trafford to see if it would be the same Red Devils or a new breed under David Moyes. Though the managerial transition has proved tough in the Premier League, with the side ninth at the end of the UEFA Champions League group stage, Moyes found a way to get results in Europe.
If lacking the fluency and confidence of previous seasons, the experience and talent in the squad ensured United remained a force, topping Group A unbeaten while not conceding a goal in their final four games. There has been talk of vulnerability and a shortage of belief yet few will fancy being drawn against United, especially if Moyes can help them recover a glimpse of their old form.
Story so far
While Old Trafford's impregnability has come into question in the Premier League, with West Bromwich Albion FC, Everton FC and Newcastle United FC all victorious there, it remains a daunting trip for European clubs. United won all three at home and coupled that with a pair of away draws and an emphatic success at Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
The German outfit were first up at Old Trafford, where Wayne Rooney's double helped the Red Devils prevail 4-2, a result followed by a 1-1 draw at FC Shakhtar Donetsk. Four more points came from back-to-back matches against Real Sociedad de Fútbol, meaning progress was assured with the 5-0 stroll in Leverkusen. A matchday six defeat of Shakhtar secured top spot.
There were three sides in pursuit of the two qualification slots before United's visit to Leverkusen on matchday five. A fortress for Sami Hyypiä's men, who had dispatched Shakhtar 4-0 there, the BayArena could well have proven a graveyard for United.
However, the Reds' display of the season reaffirmed to continental challengers that they are still a force to be reckoned with when on song. Rooney was an inspiration, setting up four goals in United's biggest-ever group stage away win. "This is probably the best performance of the season," said Moyes. "For us to come away and score five is really special."
Key player: Wayne Rooney
Two goals in five matches may not seem a bumper return for a player considered one of Europe's top strikers, but Rooney excelled in conducting the orchestra. The England forward supplied six assists, more than any other player in the group phase, and invariably produced when it mattered.
After getting United's campaign off the ground on matchday one, his sublime run and shot forced Real Sociedad's Iñigo Martínez to turn the only goal of the game into his own net on matchday three. Rooney then led Leverkusen's defence a merry dance in Germany. With injuries hampering Robin van Persie, the feeling is that if United are to go far much will rest on the shoulders of their No10.
Rising star: Phil Jones
Though his long-term future may be in central defence, Moyes has used Phil Jones as a defensive midfielder. The 21-year-old's energy and enthusiasm has been a major factor for United in defence and attack. If not the deftest of players, the former Blackburn Rovers FC prodigy more than makes up for it in commitment – evidenced by the sight of a physio regularly sprinting on to mop up the blood after Jones has thrown himself into a challenge.
Rewarded for his efforts with a volleyed winner against Shakhtar on 10 December, Jones is still developing, but with this United team finding a new character he should be at the heart of it for years to come.
Over 20 years after his competition debut, Ryan Giggs came off the bench on matchday two to make his 145th UEFA Champions League outing, overtaking Raúl González as the player with the most tournament appearances, qualifying included. The two-time winner joined the coaching staff in the summer but, having turned 40 in November, continues to excel on the pitch. "Giggs showed he is still at the top, top level. What a fantastic player," said Sociedad's Rubén Pardo after encountering the former Welsh international. "For me, he is an absolute star. Look at his age and how he can still perform."
"I'm really looking forward to it. I've always wanted to get to the Champions League. I did everything I possibly could at Everton to make that happen. Now I've got another route into it with Manchester United and I'm going to do everything I possibly can to win it."
David Moyes on his opportunity to be involved in the UEFA Champions League
Next challenge: Olympiacos FC
(Away: 25 February, home: 19 March)
United have a perfect record of four wins in four meetings with the Greek champions. They all came in the group stage over 12 months in 2001 and 2002, with Giggs scoring three goals across the fixtures. Seen by some as a favourable draw, the Piraeus side's runaway league form suggests it will be anything but. In Kostas Mitroglou they possess a striker who can trouble the best in Europe, as witnessed by his hat-trick at RSC Anderlecht. Olympiacos have reached the quarter-finals just once, in 1998/99, so history hardly favours Míchel's men – but it would be foolish to take a team who ousted SL Benfica from Group C less than 100% seriously.
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