By Thursday morning, it is very possible that Manchester United, that mighty juggernaut, will be out of Europe. It is also possible that come the 12th of May, United will be out of Europe altogether, with even the last-chance saloon that is the Europa League, out of reach. Realistically, the only way that United will qualify for the Champions League, as it stands, is if they win it. How many of you think that’s going to happen?
Wednesday, United will at least get a shot at that quixotic goal, hosting Greek side Olympiakos (live on FOX Sports 1, 3 p.m. ET) in a two-legged tie in which they are already down by two goals. Beaten badly in Greece behind goals from Alejandro Dominguez and Joel Campbell, Olympiakos are in sight of their first appearance in the quarterfinals in 15 years; United just look beaten.
And it gets worse. Sunday, United were walloped by their fiercest archrivals, Liverpool, 3-0. It was an emasculation, pure and simple, a game in which United looked bereft of ideas and clueless on tactics. After the match star Wayne Rooney described the “nightmare” as one of the “worst days” in his entire career. And manager David Moyes again struggled to find an answer, explaining: “It is difficult to explain it. It wasn’t what we expected.”
If the result wasn’t what Moyes expected then he is in the minority. Prior to the Sunday game, United were heavy underdogs from the bookies and even the most hardened fans are starting to wonder if their team’s slump is indicative of something greater: a fundamental rot. Moyes’ job is clearly on the line – to everyone else at least, if not to the manager himself.
“I have a six-year contract,” said Moyes in a Tuesday press conference that was by turns defiant and bewildering. “This club does not work on short-term vision, it works on a long-term vision.”
“My future has not changed one bit,” Moyes added. “I have a great job and know exactly what direction I want to go in.”
Is that direction straight down? United are 18 points off the top of the table, have won just six of their 14 home league games and are 12 points behind in the race for a Champions league slot with only nine games to play. Even though it is clear there is little will among the club’s hierarchy to sack Moyes, it is also becoming clear that the club may be forced to make a move. Rumblings of dissent have already surfaced this season – both Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs are reportedly disaffected; both men have subsequently denied that and yet the doubts persist.
And it is hard for many United fans to swallow the fact that once upon a time this tie was considered “soft,” an easily winnable game against an imagined second-tier side. Indeed, United have won all five games at home against Greek opposition and, all-time, have lost just ten matches at Old Trafford in the Champions League. And yet, here we are: what was once considered a walkover is now a real stumbling block.
Absent for United will be Jonny Evans (calf) and Chris Smalling (hamstring) while Juan Mata is of course cup-tied after his stint at Chelsea. Missing for Olympiakos will be Michael Olaitan; he collapsed in a scary incident two weeks ago during the Athens derby and is not fit to return to action. Javier Saviola could reach the century mark in this competition if he plays; he is not at the top of the Greeks’ pecking order however, with Nelson Valdez ahead of him.
For United to win, they will have to do a few things that they have failed to do well all season: press high and hard, be less wasteful in possession, and avoid the tactical predictability that sides as lowly as Fulham have swatted aside. They remain unable to really boss a match in midfield, so will have to rely on Rooney and van Persie to create against a side that is likely to bunker and counter. United have looked vulnerable all season long on set-pieces; if they are able to blunt and break with pace, they can win this game.
History is, believe it or not, on United’s side. Olympiakos have lost every European game played in England, and United so far have won every home game in this year’s competition. Moyes even has some history steering his team past Greek sides, albeit with Everton. So, it can be done.
But will it be? There seems to be a fatalism creeping in around this United side, a sense that even the possible is in fact improbable. Another loss and another setback will come as no surprise to a fan base that is increasingly getting used to disappointment.
And if United do fall, then the question becomes: how long will Moyes have to find his direction? Or, was there even a direction at all to begin with?