Manchester United manager David Moyes conceded that he was finding his job harder than he could have ever envisaged after a chastening 3-0 home defeat by bitter rivals Liverpool.
The loss on Sunday was United’s ninth of the Premier League campaign – five of which have come at home – and carried echoes of the 4-1 humiliation at Manchester City in September that foreshadowed the club’s current struggles.
The defending champions mustered just one shot on target in the entire game, while Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers claimed with some justification that his side “could have scored five or six”.
In the end the visitors had to content themselves with a brace of Steven Gerrard penalties and a late Luis Suarez strike.
Gerrard squandered a chance to complete a rare hat-trick of penalties when he sent a third spot-kick against the post, but the scoreline was still enough for United striker Wayne Rooney to brand it “one of the worst days I’ve ever had in football”.
With United 12 points below the Champions League places, having played two more games than fourth-placed City, their hopes of reserving a berth in Europe’s premier club competition via the league have been all but dashed.
They also trail Greek champions Olympiakos 2-0 ahead of the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Wednesday, making their chances of qualifying by winning the tournament appear almost equally remote.
It is only 10 months since Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager after overseeing the club’s 20th league title triumph, and Moyes admits that the pace of United’s decline has taken him by surprise.
“The job was always going to be hard,” he said. “Is it harder than I thought it would be? Yeah, I would say so.”
United have beaten only one of the teams currently in the Premier League’s top nine – Arsenal, in November – but despite the damning statistical evidence, Moyes played down suggestions of a malaise.
“That tells you we’re not doing as well as we should be,” he said.
“We have to play better and make ourselves harder to beat, harder to play against, and we are also going to have to make sure we are creating and taking more opportunities.”
He insisted that his players remain “confident” and “hard-working” and said that they would approach the game against Olympiakos at Old Trafford fully believing in their chances of reaching the quarter-finals.
“I think everyone wants to win, no matter what game you play, and give the supporters something to shout about,” he said.
Moyes took umbrage with some of referee Mark Clattenburg’s decisions and Rodgers conceded that Liverpool’s third penalty, awarded for a foul on Daniel Sturridge by Nemanja Vidic, was “harsh”.
Vidic was shown a second yellow card and angrily accused Sturridge of taking a dive, but despite Gerrard’s subsequent miss, there was no disguising the extent of Liverpool’s superiority.
They are now four points behind leaders Chelsea with a game in hand, but Rodgers remains reluctant to talk up his side’s title chances.
Asked if he had forbidden talk of the title, he told journalists: “I’ve not banned it. We have better things to talk about.
“It is about improving and getting better. I don’t lose sleep over it. We are up there on merit, so of course we have an opportunity -- I didn’t say no chance. If you think we have a chance, then write it.”
Rodgers also expressed bewilderment at Moyes’s pre-match admission that Liverpool were probably the favourites to win the game.
“I was probably surprised when I heard we were supposedly coming to Old Trafford here as favourites,” said the Northern Irishman.
“I would never say that at Liverpool, even if I was bottom of the league.”
Moyes responded: “I just thought Liverpool were above us in the league and playing well and I thought any average person would have said the same thing.”
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