LONDON – There can be a fine dividing line between knowing when you are well off and lacking ambition.
At Everton, David Moyes had a side that regularly beat the targets expected by fans over a decade, criticism was rare, he was well paid and had the best manager-chairman relationship possible with Bill Kenwright.
Moyes effectively had a job for life with a leading club where he was admired by everyone.
Then Manchester United came calling. Moyes was hand-picked by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor and it was an offer he could not refuse. Ambition drove him to leave the comfort zone of Everton to take over the champions, and while he knew an aging side — Fergie had papered over the cracks — needed freshening up, what he, or nobody, foresaw was how quickly United would fall from grace.
Moyes is now criticized as much as he was praised at Everton. United fans have remained supportive, though the penalty shootout loss to Sunderland in the League Cup semifinal second leg has seen a mood swing.
It is hard to believe United could not get past a team in the relegation zone over 210 minutes. In 22 Premier League games, only three teams have managed fewer shots against Sunderland in 90 minutes than United at Old Trafford on Wednesday. A shootout is a lottery, but the better team went through.
United fans are becoming sick and tired of hearing “this is the first time X have beaten United/have won at Old Trafford in 20/30/40 years.”
The confidence and swagger that was United’s trademark has been replaced by doubts, negativity and desperation. The fear factor of playing United has disappeared in six months with Moyes looking scared and lost.
He is in charge of the biggest club in England, but United has won only two of 11 matches against top-half opposition, losing six. In fact, for all Everton’s relative success under him, it had not beaten a top-four team away in 50 attempts.
United missed four of its five penalties against Sunderland — Phil Jones’ effort struck a fan in the face — though such profligacy is not new as the Reds scored only three times in the last two shootouts.
With Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton all looking stronger than United, the champions face a battle to qualify for the Europa League let alone the Champions League, which no one expects them to win this season. Being without Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie has not helped Moyes’ cause, neither has the post-Ferguson form of Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young, but it is 25 years since United last missed out on Europe and that is an ignominious landmark the Scot does not need in his debut season.
The arrival of £37 million Juan Mata from Chelsea will help United, though the signing of the Spain midfielder virtually spells the end of Shinji Kagawa’s time at Old Trafford.
Moyes has struggled to accommodate Kagawa in a central midfield role and the Japanese does not like playing wide left. With Mata, Marouane Fellaini when he is fit again, and Michael Carrick the first-choice midfielders Kagawa’s appearances will be even more limited.
Mata scored 20 goals last season and contributed 25 assists, but Jose Mourinho does not believe he contributes enough defensively. To get £37 million for a player who is surplus to your needs is good business and Chelsea is not missing Mata, the club’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons.
After 22 Premier League games last season, champions-elect United led Chelsea by 13 points. The Blues’ 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge saw them 12 points ahead of United — a 25-point turnaround.
Despite a perceived failure at Real Madrid, Mourinho remains a one-man winning machine, a coach who is tactically astute, whose man-management and motivation is second to none and if he is also a master of some of football’s darker arts he will claim the ends justify the means.
Mourinho virtually guarantees success for a club and he has transformed Chelsea from a side that underachieved last season, despite winning the Europa League, into a team once again capable of beating the best in England and, perhaps, Europe’s finest.
Just like United used to do.
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ONLY NICOLAS ANELKA knows if he is telling the truth, that his quenelle goal celebration against West Ham last month was merely an anti-Establishment gesture and support for his friend Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala.
Was the West Bromwich striker really unaware that the sign is considered by most as an inverted Nazi salute?
Or that French comedian Dieudonne has been convicted multiple times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism?
In Anelka’s world it was an innocent, if unnatural, pre-planned celebration. But why, after scoring a goal in a game televised live in France, would you make an anti-Establishment gesture in support of a fellow countryman?
As he prepares to challenge two Football Association charges that could see Anelka banned for between five and 10 games, effectively ending his career with West Bromwich as his contract is up this summer, the France international must know he is fighting an uphill battle.
The F.A. has taken three weeks to consult “quenelle experts” before charging Anelka and will be confident it has sufficient evidence for the three-man independent disciplinary committee to issue a guilty verdict on the balance of probability that the player knew the wider significance of his gesture.
Anelka, a Muslim, quoted Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, who said in a video interview with Le Figaro that the quenelle “would be reprehensible only in the case where the gesture was made in front of a synagogue or a Holocaust memorial,” and that “when it is made in a place that has no Jewish specificity” it is not offensive.
Anelka said: “What better expert than Mr. Cukierman, who explained very clearly that my quenelle could not be considered as anti-Semitic.”
If that is the best defense Anelka has, the F.A.’s legal eagles are in for an easy ride as Cukierman has subsequently clarified his earlier interview.
He said: “My statements in Le Figaro are no denial or renunciation on this subject, despite the interpretations that were made. The quenelle is a Nazi salute reversed. This is why I was disappointed with the attitude of Anelka, I was troubled by the fact the public man he is — a symbol for some of the youth of our country and so must therefore be perfect in his behavior — can make this gesture ‘to show his friendship to Dieudonne’, whose motivations are without a doubt anti-Semitic.”
For the vast majority in France, the quenelle is a way of getting around the law against a Nazi salute, while still getting the same sick “thrill.” The Internet has photographs of people performing quenelles at Auschwitz, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, outside synagogues and at dozens of other Jewish sites.
Just anti-Establishment gestures?
The hope is the F.A. will set a precedent by punishing Anelka and send out a clear message to anyone who thinks that the quenelle is no more than an anti-Establishment gesture.
Maybe Anelka can also tell us what he has against the Establishment that made him a multi-millionaire.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.