Fortune is not smiling on David Moyes at the moment. Just when things start to look better, they take a turn for the worse.
Buoyed by a win at Sunderland and a new five-year contract for boy wonder Adnan Januzaj, the feelgood factor at Old Trafford even increased when Robin van Persie put the champions ahead in the first-half yesterday.
But faced with a high-flying Southampton side who grow more impressive by the week, United paid the price for twice hitting the woodwork by conceding a scrappy equaliser in the dying minutes.
Moyes did not hang around after the final whistle while former manager Sir Alex Ferguson scowled in sympathy in the directors’ box.
‘We’re disappointed to lose the lead late on,’ said Moyes. ‘We had good opportunities to finish it off. We didn’t do well enough defending the corner, but really we should have put the game to bed earlier on.
‘We have to do better, defend the set-piece and be harder to score against.’
To his credit, Moyes is staying calm in the face of claims that Ferguson’s departure has given visitors to Old Trafford a lift.
‘I think fear comes from what team you face on the pitch, not who is the manager. It will always be the players who matter,’ he said.
This was an improved performance from the champions but they are still stuck in mid-table and the Stretford End fans are not convinced by their big summer signing Marouane Fellaini.
On the other hand, Southampton are a joy to watch and competing for the top four on merit. The high-paced match-up between Januzaj and Nathaniel Clyne was reminiscent of the famous international battles between Cristiano Ronaldo and Ashley Cole.
Neither was a loser — each emerged with credit, though 18-year-old Januzaj will be confused why he ended up in the referee’s notebook while Clyne escaped with a couple of thunderous challenges that left the winger flying through the air.
United had meekly surrendered to West Bromwich in their previous Premier League outing at Old Trafford. But this promised to be different with several of their line-up, including Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Van Persie, celebrating World Cup qualification.
Clyne left his calling card on Januzaj with a crunching tackle after 90 seconds as United took time to break up Southampton’s tidy possession play.
The hosts took the lead after 26 minutes. Januzaj curved a lovely pass into Rooney’s feet. Artur Boruc stopped his shot but Van Persie took control of the rebound instantly, his first touch taking the ball away from the keeper and his second rolling into an empty net.
Moments later, Nani fed Rooney and he hit the crossbar with a thumping shot. It turned out to be significant when United missed more chances after half-time, and later when Dejan Lovren headed a corner that brushed past Adam Lallana on the goalline with De Gea blocked off.
‘We took time to react to conceding the goal but, overall, it was an amazing effort from us,’ said their manager Mauricio Pochettino.
‘We don’t go into any game with fear. It is strange to come to Old Trafford and not see Sir Alex Ferguson in the dugout. I am not sure it is easy for David Moyes to be under the shadow of Ferguson. But Moyes is a great person. I admire him for all he has done in football.’
Southampton threw on Rickie Lambert for the final half-hour, but United should have wrapped the game up with Van Persie hitting the bar with a header and Artur Boruc saving brilliantly from Nani and Januzaj.
After the 18-year-old winger picked up his booking for a tackle on Clyne, Victor Wanyama was then booked for clattering into the United player. It was feisty stuff.
‘At 1-0, you always knew Southampton had an opportunity,’ said Moyes ruefully, and he also saw Jose Fonte make a goal-saving tackle to deny sub Danny Welbeck.
He was proved right when James Ward-Prowse slung over a corner and Lovren beat Phil Jones to the ball. Lallana, whose prime job was to block De Gea, may have got a touch. The referee gave the goal to Lovren, replays suggested Lallana, and even Pochettino couldn’t verify who had claimed it. ‘Fifty per cent to each of them,’ said the Argentinian.
Tellingly, given United’s defensive shambles, as Moyes finished his press conference and headed home, Ferguson was on MUTV stating the importance of Nemanja Vidic to United’s prospects this season.
The captain missed yesterday with a calf complaint but Moyes hopes to have the Serb back for Wednesday’s Champions League game against Real Sociedad.
With nearly a quarter of the season gone, United are four points behind Southampton. Title rivals Arsenal and Chelsea are even further ahead. Moyes cannot wait for a bit of good luck to fall his way. – Mail On Sunday