MANCHESTER, England – The "Chosen One" banner has gone from the Stretford End. The team has been overhauled through three consecutive offseasons of lavish spending. Alex Ferguson's shadow no longer looms quite so large.
Yet, when David Moyes returns to Old Trafford on Monday for the first time since his abrupt firing by Manchester United in April 2014, he'll find things haven't changed that much at England's biggest club since his ill-fated 10-month spell there three seasons ago.
In the fourth year of the post-Ferguson era, 20-time champion United is still yearning for its former glories, still searching for that attacking spark of old, and still languishing outside the Champions League qualification positions they once took for granted.
Recent results may have been encouraging for United's latest manager, Jose Mourinho, but a run of three straight wins has only left the team in sixth place heading into the match against Sunderland, the relegation-threatened northeast club coached by Moyes. A top-four finish — and therefore a place in the Champions League — is far from guaranteed for United this season.
So Moyes returns to United with a feeling of "What if?"
What if he'd been allowed to see out the six-year contract he was given after being hand-picked as a replacement by Ferguson (hence the "Chosen One" moniker)? Instead, as soon as United could no longer finish in the top four in that 2013-14 campaign, he was fired .
What if he'd been given more than two transfer windows to reshape an aging squad left behind by Ferguson? Moyes signed two first-team players — Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata — at a cost of about 65 million pounds, which is nothing compared to the amount successors Louis van Gaal and Mourinho have spent. Moyes said he targeted Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Cesc Fabregas, and had finalized a deal for Toni Kroos but was fired before it could go through.
"I was definitely unfairly treated," Moyes said in his pre-match news conference. "Other managers have come and gone and it's been difficult for them as well. I actually think whoever followed Alex Ferguson, whether it be Jose Mourinho then or Carlo Ancelotti or Juergen Klopp, Pep Guardiola or David Moyes, I think it would have been the same.
"I think it would have taken whoever it was time to change the squad around. It was going to be a rebuilding job and never get done immediately."
Moyes said he was given "plenty of reassurances" he would have longer to carry out the rebuilding job — "I didn't believe I had to do it in nine months, or even 12 months" — but is still happy to have experienced managing such a big club.
"Disappointed I didn't get to see out my contract, that's for sure," he said, "but I'll look back knowing I was really fortunate to have the chance to work with some great players, and to see how, at the real top level, things are. I enjoyed being at Manchester United."
Since leaving Old Trafford, Moyes spent a year at Real Socieded before getting fired and has been in charge of Sunderland since July. The team is in 18th place in the 20-team standings after 17 games.
Mourinho was overlooked as a direct successor to Ferguson, but United turned to the Portuguese coach after the disappointing tenures of Moyes and Van Gaal. Mourinho said that didn't put him off the job.
"I thought about the difficulty of the job, I tried to ask myself why, in terms of results, in the past three years the club was going in a difficult direction. I tried to answer," Mourinho said Friday.
"What I knew was the evolution of the Premier League, the new direction of the Premier League. And I knew periods of domination belong to the past. Because the Premier League was going already in an incredible direction. It is what it is now."
Here's what else to look out for in the 18th round of games over Dec. 26-28:
CHELSEA vs. BOURNEMOUTH
Chelsea, the leader over Liverpool by six points, goes in search of a 12th straight league win without the services of top scorer Diego Costa and midfielder N'Golo Kante, who are both suspended.
They are set to be replaced by Michy Batshuayi, who still hasn't started a Premier League game, and Nemanja Matic.
HULL vs. MANCHESTER CITY
Third-placed City welcomes back Fernandinho from a three-game ban but is still without striker Sergio Aguero, who serves the last match of his four-game suspension.
City coach Pep Guardiola hasn't given his players much time to celebrate Christmas, with his plans for Dec. 25 consisting of a morning training session followed by a bus trip to the northern city of Hull.