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United faces improbable climb to defend title

by Christopher Davies

WARNING: The opening paragraph does not make happy reading for Manchester United fans. The champions have won only two points from their last three games, they are in ninth position, their lowest ever at this stage of a Premier League season. They have scored fewer goals at Old Trafford than basement club Sunderland has at the Stadium of Light. The Reds have already lost four matches — they were defeated five times in the entire season last time around.

United trails leader Arsenal by a seemingly uncatchable 12 points, a gap that must seem more like the Grand Canyon when you are looking up.

The good news is that under Sir Alex Ferguson, United twice overhauled 12-point deficits to win the Premier League: in 1992-93 when it railed Norwich by a dozen points after 17 games, and in 1995-96 when it was behind Newcastle by the same margin after 23 matches.

That was then. Few United fans realistically expected the side to retain its English crown under new management. But it certainly did not believe the team would be as many points off the relegation zone as it is behind leader Arsenal as Christmas approaches.

In the 21-year history of the Premier League, Ferguson’s United never finished lower than third. Ignominy beckons for David Moyes because Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City look stronger, more consistent and better equipped for the end-of-season slugfest involving English football’s heavyweights.

“We will need to play some great football and win an awful lot of games in the run-in if we are going to be in there and around it come the end of the season,” said Moyes, and United has little room for error now.

To reach the 85 points total that may be enough to secure the title this season, United will need to win 63 of the 72 points available to it. That amounts to 20 victories, three draws and one defeat.

Not impossible, but it’s getting that way and United will have to create Premier League history to retain the title because no team has won the English League after losing four of its opening 14 games since Everton in 1986-87.

The latest United defeat, the 1-0 loss to his former club Everton, would have hurt Moyes the most. Everton, under Roberto Martinez, is five points better off than it was at this stage last season; the visitors registered their eighth league shutout of the season at Old Trafford, United has managed three. Under Martinez, Everton has improved; under Moyes, United has gone backwards.

The abuse directed at Moyes who, for 11 years, kept an overachieving Everton competitive despite a comparative shoestring budget, by the visiting fans was vitriolic. The most polite chant was “You’re getting sacked in the morning” as Everton followers celebrated Bryan Oviedo’s late winner. Moyes, who could hardly be blamed for leaving Everton after such sterling service to take the most prestigious managerial job in the country, didn’t expect a standing ovation, but the abuse proved how short memories can be.

If Everton supporters were initially unhappy that Moyes signed Marouane Fellaini, its best player in the opinion of many last season, for £27.5 million as the summer transfer window closed, they should be doing cartwheels now. The Belgium international has been a resounding flop so far at United despite his familiarity with Moyes, while Fellaini’s Goodison Park replacement, James McCarthy, who cost £13 million from Wigan, has been a crucial cog in Everton’s outstanding midfield.

Martinez’s three loan signings — Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona) and Gareth Barry (Manchester City) — have scored 10 of Everton’s 22 Premier League goals.

Moyes was the obvious and natural successor to Ferguson, who endorsed his fellow countryman. Pep Guardiola was committed to Bayern Munich, and Jose Mourinho’s abrasive style did not fit in the United DNA ,so when Ferguson decided to call it a day, the manager who had done so well with Everton ticked more boxes than anyone who was available.

He inherited the English champions though Ferguson — privately, at least — would no doubt admit surgery was required. United won the league last season because the opposition was inferior to what it is now and in Ferguson it had a unique manager whose sheer weight of personality could drag results out of a side like no one else.

United has too many bit-part players such as Anderson, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are not progressing at the rate most predicted. Wilfried Zaha, Ferguson’s last signing who cost £15 million from Crystal Palace, struggles to make the substitutes’ bench.

What Moyes does during the January transfer window will define United’s season, though more immediately he needs Robin van Persie, who has missed United’s last four games, to shake off what the manager called “a sore but nothing desperately serious groin injury.”

Worryingly, Moyes admitted he had “no idea” when the striker would be back while Wayne Rooney is suspended for Saturday’s visit of Newcastle United, having collected five yellow cards, so Danny Welbeck will lead the line.

“Moyes crisis” was one headline on Thursday, but judgement will come at the end of the season. If United does not qualify for the Champions League, Moyes will be seen to have failed even if it wins the Capital One Cup — it plays Stoke in the quarterfinals — or the F.A. Cup. The most die-hard Reds fan would not tip them to win the Champions League.

Amid the doom and gloom it must be remembered that United is only five points away from fourth place and the defeat by Everton was its first in 13 games, a run which included beating Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford and Bayer Leverkusen, who are second in the Bundesliga, 5-0 in Germany.

However, if United doesn’t beat Newcastle on Saturday, life will become even more uncomfortable for Moyes because when you are in charge of England’s biggest club size really does matter.

* * *

IT ALL started when Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner said in an interview in his native Denmark: “I want to be the best striker in the world.”

Nothing wrong with that, a young player aiming to be the best in his profession. However, by the time it hit the English media the quote had become: “I am the best striker in the world,” and thus began the Bendtner jokes because the perception is the reality. He was branded arrogant, deluded . . . you name it, he was accused of being it.

Well, not the best striker in the world, of course, though his 24 goals in 56 internationals for Denmark is virtually the same ratio as Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal (47 in 109) and Lionel Messi for Argentina (37 in 83).

The Bendtner misquote stuck, the player hardly helping his cause by wearing and displaying sponsored underpants during Euro 2012, being banned for drink-driving and accepting a police caution for criminal damage to a swimming pool door (I kid you not). He was booed off the pitch at the Emirates after missing a hatful of chances against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup and booed again as he warmed up last week against Marseille.

When his name was read out before Wednesday’s game against Hull — his first Premier League start since March 2011 — the initial disbelief soon turned to jeers. “Has he won a competition to play for Arsenal?” was just one derisory gag as the Twitterati burst into action.

Yet it took Bendtner just 95 seconds to open the scoring with his first Premier League goal in three years, a clinical header from two yards. Rarely has a goal been greeted by laughter and applause. On Thursday one tweet read: “I woke up today in a world where Nicklas Bendtner has scored. No wonder the winds are howling. The balance of the universe has been disturbed.”

The BBC web site was moved to tell us: FACT: Nicklas Bendtner has scored more goals this month than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery and Robin van Persie combined.

And it all began with a misquote.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.