Champions League

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Olympiakos stun Manchester United

Olympiakos v Manchester United
Olympiakos v Manchester United
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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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Misfortunate has had a funny way of finding Manchester United this season. And on Tuesday, it did so again when the Red Devils traveled to Olympiakos for their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg. A wicked deflection put the Greeks ahead, and as so often in their miserable season, United had no answer, ultimately losing 2-0. That’s how United became first team not to win on the road in the tournament’s knockout stages.

By the time Alejandro Dominguez took a quick swipe at Giannis Maniatis shot from outside the box in the 38th minute, totally changing its direction and wrong-footing goalkeeper David de Gea, United had hardly demonstrated that they were worthy of the win. And once they did concede that goal, it seemed an inevitability that they should lose for the first time in their European campaign, just as the matches really start to matter.

For it had been, and would continue to be, another night of soccer malpractice by the storied side from Manchester. The defense looked shaky as ever, with Rio Ferdinand appearing particularly vulnerable. And the attack mustered next to nothing, just like in almost every other game in this year of despair.

Instead, it was the unfancied Greeks who produced most of the danger, producing eight shots on goal to United’s one. On paper, Olympiakos surely had no business competing with the Red Devils, let alone beating them. But then they have been so out of sorts since David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex Fergson last summer that no upset surprises any longer.

And so nobody batted an eyelash when, after a first half starved of real chances, Olympiakos began knocking heavily on United’s door. In the 55th minute, Tom Cleverley, one of many underperforming Englishmen, lost the ball in his own half. Joel Campbell -- the Costa Rican on loan from Arsenal, incidentally -- picked it up, purposefully strode at the opposing penalty area and nutmegged Michael Carrick. Since Ferdinand didn’t close him down, standing statuesquely firm, Campbell fired off a curler from outside the box which swerved around the defender and de Gea before settling into the far corner.

The doubled lead was hardly undeserved. And while United finally started producing shots in the late going, they never came close to bagging a precious away goal.

ALL OUT AFFAIR

Relive the best shots from the UEFA Champions League's Round of 16.

The loss was particularly painful considering that United is already out of the FA Cup and League Cup and needs to make up 11 points just to take fourth place in the league and the accompanying spot in next year’s Champions League. Europe promised the only reprieve from the desolation. But now United need to keep a clean sheet and make up two goals at home, a tall task against a well-organized defense, as is typical of Greek sides.

Earlier in the day, some shambolic defending seemed to spell the end of Zenit Saint Petersburg’s continental campaign before a full five minutes of their first knockout round tie had been played. In the 4th minute, Domenico Criscito tried to pull down Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus as he loped into the Russians’ box. Reus kept his feet in the jumble of legs though, and the ball rolled free to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose low shot was beyond the reach of goalkeeper Yury Lodygin.

Not even a minute later, Mkhitaryan hit a cross from the right and once again, Zenit’s back line failed to defuse the danger, allowing the ball to fall to Reus, who whacked it into the twine at the near post.

Once Zenit realized the game had already begun, things evened out. Zenit, in fact, claimed most of the possession over the entire game, even if the chances were mostly Dortmund’s. Zenit got on the board in the 58th minute. Salomon Rondon was offside when a ball was dinked over the top, which eventually led to his shot off the post in a mad scramble. On the rebound, Oleg Shatov rifled in the 2-1.

But in the 62nd, Robert Lewandowski hit Lukasz Piszczek on the run on his right, kept going, got the ball back, controlled it and scored on a simple finish to put Dortmund ahead by a pair of goals again. Piszczek collided with Hulk in his own box not long thereafter though, inducing a soft penalty. Hulk smashed in the penalty off the underside of the bar in the right top corner.

Yet Zenit once again fell asleep after a kickoff. This time, Reus picked up yet another Zenit turnover in the midfield, sent a sliderule pass to Lewandowski and watched the Pole do what he does best to put the final 4-2 score on the board.

Zenit will rue what might have been, if only it had been a little more attentive to its defensive affairs and nursed the home-field advantage and generous goals they got, rather than turn the away game into a near-impossible task.
 

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