David Moyes insists the money is in place to strengthen Manchester United with a major signing that would demonstrate the club's ambition, and while he may not be able to do a deal to bring in such a player in January he is confident the backing will be there to secure important targets whether or not United finish in a Champions League position.

"We can definitely find the money for a big deal, 100%," the United manager said. "I know that because the money was available this summer. We were very close to a major, major signing, and if it had gone through it would have definitely shown what the club is worth. We didn't do it in the end, we didn't quite get there because players had chosen other clubs or made different decisions, but we were close to a couple of major signings and we didn't miss out because of money, that's for sure."

Moyes is understandably reluctant to name names of players now contracted to other clubs, though United's pursuit of Cesc Fábregas over the summer was scarcely a secret and the even more audacious deal Ed Woodward was trying to pull off was thought to concern Gareth Bale. United were willing to put up just as much money as Real Madrid, but it is believed the Tottenham player had his heart set on linking up with Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabéu. Ronaldo himself was a possible target, and a return to Old Trafford would certainly have been popular, but it is understood that Bale was the coup United were seeking to show intent and get Moyes's tenure off to a positive start. "I don't see the particular deal we were looking at being resurrected in January," Moyes said. "And I would be surprised if it crops up again next summer."

Things did not turn out in quite the way United might have been hoping, but Moyes is not discouraged, despite a sluggish start to the league season that has raised the possibility of missing out on the top four for the first time since top fours were invented. With four games against teams in the lower half of the table between now and the end of the year, United have the chance of making up ground against the leading quartet who all play each other twice in the same period, even if the loss of Robin van Persie until the New Year is a considerable setback. "There's been an inconsistency about us in the league," Moyes said. "You can hardly tell what looks like a winnable game any more. We beat Arsenal when they were top of the league, then we slipped up in games that looked easier. We need to win the next game and take it from there. Maybe if we can get a run of two or three wins I can talk differently, but we need to get the first one done."

First up is Aston Villa, where United have a decent record even if they have survived a couple of scares in recent seasons, mainly due to the home side getting pumped up for what they clearly regard as the biggest game of the season. Moyes scarcely needs that as he looks to avoid a third successive league defeat, though if United's aura of invincibility has been punctured he can expect every team encountered from here on in to scent blood and fancy their chances. Until United put together the sequence of wins Moyes is aiming for, missing the Champions League cut is not out of the question.

"If that happens it could affect our ability to sign players but most people will recognise Manchester United as a club where most years you can almost guarantee Champions League football," Moyes said. "The name still carries weight, but if you are talking of major signings they have to be available, they have to be gettable and they have to want to come here. At times a lot of those things don't always fit in. The real elite players probably have a choice of maybe three or four clubs. Manchester United will always be one of them but in addition to Real Madrid and Barcelona you now have other clubs with a lot of money, Paris St-Germain for example, so the top players have more choices."

At least United managed to finish top of their Champions League Group this time round, something that Manchester City could not organise and a source of considerable satisfaction to Moyes as he took in the Atlético Madrid v Porto game a day after beating Shakhtar Donetsk. "I was being texted the other results and thinking 'thank God we didn't finish second'," he said.

"There are some really tough opponents out there. Finishing first gives us a great opportunity, but I actually felt we played better against Everton and Newcastle than we did against Shakhtar. The Bayer performance [5-0 in Leverkusen] is what we are capable of but we haven't shown that consistency and we need to do better. We need a win, so at the moment it's one game at a time."