MANCHESTER, England —Fifteen years ago, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer dealt Bayern Munich a famous defeat, scoring deep into injury time at the Nou Camp to give Manchester United its first UEFA Champions League trophy. Now, United look to repeat history as they face the Bavarian giants again, here on their own soil in the Champions League quarterfinals (live, Tuesday, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET).
But it’s not 1999, and as Ryan Giggs deadpanned on Monday’s press conference, "some of the lads here don’t even remember 1999."
That was funny. As the current season would suggest, this is also not the Manchester United of old.
The Red Devils are unlikely entrants at this stage of the competition, enduring what can only be charitably be called an "off" year. They sit in seventh in the Barclays Premier League and are ten points off a Champions League slot with just six games to play. The only realistic way they will make the tournament is if they win it, which is not likely. And now they have the unenvied task of facing not only the reigning champions, but a Bayern side that is breaking records with fervor.
"Obviously, Bayern are the holders and since [Josep Guardiola] took them over they have added new players, and are a very strong team," said Giggs. "They are the favorites in most people eyes. But we see ourselves not as underdogs but as Manchester United playing at home in the Champions League. It’s going to be tough but it is always tough in the quarterfinals. We’re looking forward to it."
Giggs’ calm contrasted notably with another tense appearance in front of the media from Moyes, perhaps reflecting how parlous his position here has become.
"We want to play well, and there are some signs, we’ve had some good results but not as often as we’d like," said Moyes, stating the obvious. "It is the sort of night that United has risen to in the past."
Ah, yes, the past. That was when United regularly won games and planes weren’t flying over the grounds, calling for the manager’s head. It’s when the local newspaper wasn’t running a cheeky "David Moyes Excuse Generator" on its front page. It’s when fans were gleeful to come into Old Trafford, in contrast to the die-hard fan who told me on Sunday that he felt he was spending "$1700 to go watch United lose." It’s grim up here, and the manager’s feeling it, for sure. His press officer cut off a question about how he was dealing with the pressure. A question about whether Giggs would one day "slide a foot to his right" on the dias was greeted with queasy laughter.
But for all the sick feelings here, Bayern are not looking past this match, even if the expectation is that they will win it in a walkover.
Arjen Robben, speaking to the club’s website, said: "We need to watch ourselves. The media and everyone else is saying United aren’t in good shape so you’ll definitely make the semifinals. I don’t like this at all. You only need to lose concentration once and you could be beaten by United."
"We cannot forget we are going to Old Trafford and that the most important team in England, over the past 15 years, has been Manchester United," said Bayern manager Pep Guardiola Saturday after seeing his side’s 19-game winning streak snapped with a 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim. "They have experience and players who have won seven Premier League titles, as well as the Champions League. They have won so many finals, and they know how to handle a situation like this."
What was unspoken here is that Guardiola knows how to handle Manchester United: his Barcelona side downed United twice in the finals, first in Rome in 2009 and then witheringly in 2011 in what was considered a "home game" for United. That loss also emphatically signaled an end to United’s European hopes for years to come: they were the best of the English sides then — and they weren’t close to the cream of Europe.
Bayern, who enter riding a seven-game away win streak in this tournament, are so significantly better at every position than Manchester United, it’s difficult to see how the Red Devils can contain them. United’s paid problems — a lack of width, an over-reliance on Wayne Rooney to create, a shambolic defense — can be badly exposed by a run-and-gun Bayern side that always looks to isolate and expose defenders.
Now, Bayern and United also have some significant absentees: Dante and Patrice Evra are both suspended, while Robin van Persie and Thiago Alcantra are out injured. But United are far more depleted, as six other United players are carrying injuries of varying severity, with their back four among the hardest hit. Rafael was not able to take part in Monday’s training due to a thigh problem. As a result, Rafael and Jonny Evans are not expected to start against the defending European champions.
"We have defensive issues undoubtedly," said Moyes when pressed. "I won’t be giving out my team today not to Bayern and certainly not to you. And we’ll have to make one or two changes as everyone is aware."
Sharp. And with that, Moyes and Giggs disappeared back behind the curtain. They will again face their judges on Tuesday night.