After eight months during which humiliations and abject performances had become as common as the false dawns derived from every positive result, Manchester United finally stood up and were counted.
The Premier League champions arrived into last night’s clash against Bayern Munich like an old car set to be left to rot in a scrapyard but emerged with their engine still running, though not on full revs, after 90 minutes.
David Moyes’ bullish claims that his side could fight toe-to-toe against the all conquering Germans had raised more than an eyebrow before the game, particularly given the swiftness with Moyes had tied his colours to the mast of defeatism this season, but the United manager was proved right last night.
Except not in the way he would have expected, for United did not go toe-to-toe with Bayern, in fact they didn’t even attempt to.
United sat back and defended as deep as it was possible for them to do without having to step on David De Gea’s feet and, to borrow a line dear to Jose’ Mourinho, parked the bus and defended like their lives depended on it.
Moyes might be hopelessly out of his depth at a club like United, where attacking flair and attractive football are embodied in the club’s ethos and tradition, but throughout his career he’s almost always come up against better sides than the one he managed.
It is no surprise that while Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini took the game to Bayern – or at least try to do in different spells of their encounters against Pep Guardiola’s armada – Moyes asked his men to sit tight and defend resiliently.
Nor is it surprising than in a season during which he’s been consistently found out tactically, Moyes got his strategy spot on in a game his team approached as the underdogs: last night was like watching Moyes’ Everton against any top four team in the last decade.
Arguably for the first time in his United career, Moyes had a plan, stuck to it and reaped the rewards. The majority of United supporters might not be happy to see their team relinquishing the initiative in games of this magnitude, but parking the bus might be their team’s only chance to progress.
As Inter Milan and Chelsea have shown in recent seasons, winning the Champions League is as much a matter of making life as uncomfortable as possible for your opponents as it is of stamping your football philosophy on the game.
With such a paucity of midfield options at his disposal – one not helped by the catastrophic Marouane Fellaini – Moyes stuck to his guns, as United suffocated Bayern’s game and are still very much in the tie ahead of the return leg next week.
That Moyes’ best managerial performance in the Old Trafford dugout came in a game after which his team was accused of playing anti-football is a damning indication of the task the Scotsman faces at a club where performances such as last night are tolerated, rather than cherished.