Champions League | Old Trafford | Wed 19 Mar | 7:45pm
This is it. This really is it. Seven months of gross underachievement and never-ending disappointment can be cast aside – albeit briefly – if Manchester United can remember that they’re Manchester United for one night. Just one night – is that too much to ask?
MAN UNITED FORM
- Man Utd 0-3 Liverpool (Lge)
- WBA 0-3 Man Utd (Lge)
- Olympiakos 2-0 Man Utd (Cup)
- Palace 0-2 Man Utd (Lge)
- Arsenal 0-0 Man Utd (Lge)
- Olympiakos 2-0 Panth'kos (Lge)
- PAOK 2-1 Olympiakos (Lge)
- Olympiakos 0-3 Panath'kos (Lge)
- Olympiakos 2-0 Man Utd (Cup)
- OFI 0-4 Olympiakos (Lge)
The Reds’ 2-0 first leg defeat at the Karaiskakis Stadium was another reminder of just how far they’ve fallen this season, made worse by a sulky Robin van Persie grumbling about team-mates playing where he wants to (and then presumably taking his ball home).
David Moyes, never one to stack the blame on his struggling stars, shouldered it himself. But even the Scot, guardian of many a Reds horror show this season, admitted he “just didn’t see that level of performance coming”.
This time there can be no room for error. United must score at least three times to progress (unless they fancy a nerve-jangling shootout) – something they’ve done six times in 29 league games this season, and only twice in the Champions League (both against Bayer Leverkusen).
Moyes’ men need not panic just yet. They were impressive in the group stage en route to their comfortable Group A win, remaining unbeaten and conceding in just two of their six games. They’ve got the firepower to get this job done, but Moyes has thus far struggled to find a way of making Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj dangerous together. All four started in Sunday’s Anfield humiliation, but only three are eligible here.
If they’re going to overturn their two-goal deficit, they’ll have to look back 30 years for the last time they did so. On that occasion in 1984 they stuffed Barcelona 3-0 in their Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford, inspired by Bryan Robson’s brace.
Olympiakos are not Barcelona, helpfully. They’ve won the Greek Super League with five games to spare (in front of nobody on Saturday after crowd problems against Panathinaikos), but they lost their star man in January and haven’t reached the quarter-finals since 1998/99.
Take nothing away from them, though – Michel’s side were worthy of their first leg win, and are highly unlikely to make life easy for their struggling Premier League opponents.
If there’s another thing in Moyes’ men’s favour, it’s that the Greeks are hardly used to defending a lead like this. Their efforts away from home in the group stage were admirable: spanking Anderlecht with a Kostas Mitroglou treble, only succumbing to last-minute defeat at PSG and taking a creditable draw at Benfica (denied late on again). But this is a very different proposition – and with so much at stake, a genuinely fascinating one.
Player to watch: Robin van Persie (Man United)
His team needs him, and he needs them. It feels like a game where United players will rally around one another, and the influential Dutchman will undoubtedly be a key part of any prospective United revival - even if he was rubbish at Anfield on Sunday.
His post-first leg comments, while seemingly unhelpful, hold some truth. Moyes’ struggles getting the best out of his attacking weapons are clear, but without the cup-tied Mata he needs Rooney to turn creator – as the England man has done excellently in the Premier League so far this season (tied at the top with Luis Suarez on 10 assists). In Greece, Rooney’s work was mainly defensive – he played just 10 of his 49 passes in the final third, attempted 5 tackles in his own half and recovered the ball 9 times from deep positions. As a result, Van Persie suffered. The 30-year-old received only 19 passes all game – although 2 of those still led to chances in the box.
The Dutch goal-getter will see much more of the ball at Old Trafford, where he's likely to be involved more at the sharp end than in the midfield mire. His track record speaks for itself – even if his playing relationship with Rooney doesn’t (Van Persie has profited from only two of his team-mate’s assists this season – one a corner).
“This is still the biggest club in the world,” declared Moyes in Tuesday’s pre-match presser. “It might not feel like it today, but I'm telling you it will rise again.” For him – or indeed any other prospective United boss – it could be the last Champions League press conference at Old Trafford for a year and a half at least.
Olympiakos boss Michel has no such problems. Since taking charge in Piraeus last summer, the former Sevilla boss has kept Olympiakos fans onside (no mean feat) and already delivered their customary title. You can’t knock his confidence – this week he declared his wish to manager Real Madrid one day, where he spent 14 years as a player (but never won the European Cup).
"Some day I will get that opportunity and train Real Madrid," he insisted. "Meanwhile, I will continue working and learning. I am convinced that I will not die without having coached them."
Facts and figures
- United have won all four of their Champions League home games against Greek opposition, scoring 15 goals and conceding only one.
- United have won 13 of their last 15 Champions League knockout games at Old Trafford (D1 L1).
- Olympiakos have lost all 7 of their Champions League games in England, conceding at least 2 goals every time and never scoring more than 1.
- In 7 knockout Champions League games, Olympiakos have only lost once by more than 1 clear goal. It was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in March 2008 (0-3).
- This is the 16th time in the last 18 seasons that United have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League. The last time they went past the last 16 was back in 2010/11.
- Ryan Giggs (139 games) is only 3 games short of equalling Raul’s record of 142 appearances in the Champions League.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
We’re with you, Moysie. Under the Old Trafford lights with rockets up their collective arses, United to win 2-0… and then finish the job in extra-time.
DORTMUND VS ZENIT
- Dortmund have only kept 1 clean sheet in their last 11 Champions League games.
- None of Dortmund’s last 11 Champions League games has ended in a draw (W7 L4).
- Dortmund are unbeaten in their 5 encounters with Russian teams in all competitions (W4 D1).
- Zenit have only won 1 of their 7 games in the Champions League this season.
- Zenit have never scored more than two goals in their 13 away Champions League games.
- Hulk has scored or assisted 71% of Zenit’s goals in the Champions League this season.
Meanwhile, on Screen Two…
While Dortmund’s passage to the last eight isn’t exactly signed and sealed, their four goals in St. Petersburg (in a 4-2 win) makes this one theirs to fluff. It’ll also be Zenit’s last game with a caretaker manager, after former Chelsea and Tottenham puppet Andre Villas-Boas was confirmed as the Russians’ new boss on a two-year contract. The Portuguese, sacked by Spurs in December, replaces Luciano Spalletti, who guided Zenit to two league titles and a domestic cup.
Dortmund should see this one out on their own patch, but again find themselves hampered by injuries. Marco Reus is a doubt having not featured since the first leg, while Sven Bender, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Ilkay Gündogan will miss out once more. On the plus side, Robert Lewandowski returned against Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan should make it after missing the weekend defeat.
It’s nay bother for Jürgen Klopp, though. "We have reached a point where we can compensate for any absences and still play good football," said the Dortmund coach, who was sent to the stands on Saturday. You can hardly blame the bravado – die Schwarzgelben have won eight of their last nine Champions League home games.
Zenit’s stand-in boss Sergey Semak, meanwhile, is without defender Cristian Ansaldi and alleged footballer Andrey Arshavin through injury, after both missed Saturday’s defeat at CSKA Moscow.