Champions League

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United, Dortmund yearn to rebound

FOX Soccer Daily: Dortmund, United have something to prove in Champions League
FOX Soccer Daily: Dortmund, United have something to prove in Champions League
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It has been a long and wretched season for Manchester United. There are no two ways about it. The transfer of power from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes has come off worse than even United’s legion of haters might have hoped. They are out of the FA Cup, out of the League Cup and, having won just three of eight Premier League games since the turn of the year, can hope for no more than fourth place – and accompanying UEFA Champions League ticket for next year – with 11 points to make up in 11 games to accomplish even that.

But for those who hold the Red Devils near to their hearts, some salvation might finally be on the horizon to salve the gaping wounds punched into their pride. On Tuesday, United will turn up in Greece to take on Olympiakos in the first leg of their round-of-16 tie in the Champions League (live, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET). In a stroke of the luck that so habitually befell them in the past but has been elusive this season, they got the softest draw imaginable. Even a United side in such desperate disarray as this one should make simple work of this task.

And then, with passage into the quarterfinals assured, a pair of solid games could put United back among Europe’s elite. Then things wouldn’t seem quite so terrible anymore. And United could start preparing for next season safe in the knowledge that they still matter – that they are, as the kids say, still a thing.

Certainly, Olympiakos are no slouches. They are destroying the rest of the Greek league, for what that’s worth, with 23 wins and two draws in 25 games and a +65 goal difference. Still, they’re out of their depth now, having squeaked past Benfica on goal difference in the group stage. They sold their talisman and top scorer Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham. That leaves only Javier Saviola, the Argentinian veteran forward, with the requisite ability.

And United are in yet another prolonged slump. Wins are elusive. Even at lowly Crystal Palace last weekend, a side delighted just to be in the Premier League, it took a great deal of fruitless toil before United broke through on a 62nd minute penalty in a 2-0 win. It was pretty mirthless stuff. As my editor put it: “Any side that puts two banks of four against United will prosper.”

Their big summer acquisition, Marouane Fellaini, has yet to find his footing in midfield. Their blockbuster winter signing, Juan Mata, is ineligible for this game, having already played continentally with Chelsea. To make things worse, Phil Jones, Johnny Evans and Nani are likely out with injuries.

Moyes sounds optimistic, but not very. “Everybody wants to win it and we’ll try to do it,” he said. “Teams don’t want to play Manchester United. They know what it stands for as they have been successful.” It’s worth noting there that he said “they” and not “we.”

“I hope we can play well enough to get through this round and see what happens next,” Moyes continued, perhaps hedging his bets a tad. “They are undoubtedly the best team in Greece, no question about it. They also have a lot of Greek internationals who will go to the World Cup and it will be a really tough game.”

Marouane Fellaini has yet to find his groove at United. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty)

Perhaps, but Borussia Dortmund, the European vice-champions, have the much tougher game. They travel to Russia for their first leg with Zenit Saint-Petersburg for the day’s early game (live, noon ET, FOX Sports 1). Inundated by injuries, the season has been fairly well ruined for Dortmund, unless they, like United, manage to make a run in Europe. They lost four of six in the Bundesliga across November and December and now trail eternal foes Bayern Munich by 20 points. And on Saturday, they got hammered 3-0 by relegation stragglers Hamburg.

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But they survived a three-way group-stage tie with Arsenal and Napoli – the latter the odd side out. And in Zenit they face a team that is a rich and well-stocked team, anchored by Axel Witsel and Hulk, but hasn’t played in a competitive game since Dec. 11, owing to the Russian Premier League’s long winter break. They have won just one game since Oct. 26, while losing three and tying four.

Both teams, then, are vulnerable. Zenit, while in first place domestically, are out of their rhythm – and Dortmund have yet to find one. But Zenit, like all Russian teams, have the considerable advantage now of the distance Dortmund have to travel, and the climate they will encounter. Theirs is a daunting stadium to visit, and they will need to make it count before they head on that same long trip, and enter Dortmund’s own cauldron.

Expect these games to be tight and tense. Because for all teams involved, there’s more at stake than just the outcome of their European campaign. They need to advance to justify their entire seasons.
 

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