Just a week ago, simply avoiding humiliation appeared the limit of Manchester United's hopes when taking on Bayern Munich over two legs. While the Bavarians had improved under a new coach with a massive act to follow and had already sealed their domestic league title, United had faded from Premier League champions to being almost unrecognizable in their mediocrity under their new man in the dugout.
Things now look far more positive for United, however. A 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie at Old Trafford when United showed previously unseen resistance was the high point of Moyes’s troubled reign. That display was then followed up by the team scoring four goals for the second league game in succession and finally showing signs of attacking coherency.
Meanwhile, Bayern, who were surprisingly blunt in the final third in the first leg, have since lost a Bundesliga match for the first time in 18 months amid a run of no wins in three consecutive matches in all competitions. Pep Guardiola will also go into the second leg against United unable to call upon three central midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez through suspension, as well as Thiago Alcantara due to injury.
Reasons for increased optimism then for Manchester United when taking to the Allianz Arena pitch on Wednesday evening? Certainly. However, it would be foolhardy to assert that United remain anything other than considerable outsiders.
United were certainly impressive in their ability to limit Bayern to few chances at Old Trafford, despite their opponents dominating possession, as well as carrying a threat on the counter attack. Yet, the fact remains that 1-1 at home in the Champions League is not a particularly positive result. In many ways, much of the lauding of the performance and score-line is a result of how far expectations have already slipped under Moyes’s stewardship. No one could reasonably deny that Bayern have superior players, especially in midfield, but it also shouldn’t be forgotten that Moyes spent close to £30 million on one of his midfielders last summer. Meanwhile, a player in United’s ranks who has excelled against Bayern in the past, Shinji Kagawa, was not in the starting lineup.
The first leg was a match that perfectly suited Moyes’s comfort zone. It is no mere coincidence that United’s results have been better in Europe, particularly away from home, this season. There are very few games domestically where it is acceptable or logical for United to go into with the type of pragmatic approach that Moyes favored while at Everton. In Europe there is more opportunity for that method, notably on the road where a draw is widely considered an accepted result.
It is a style that Moyes will almost certainly implement once again in Munich. And it could reap dividends. The center of Bayern’s defense showed again at Old Trafford that it is the weakest part of the team and can be exposed when isolated on the break. Wayne Rooney is expected to lead the line following a toe injury, but it is Danny Welbeck who could again be the best outlet to take advantage of Bayern’s defensive vulnerability. Welbeck’s pace and intelligent movement caused notable problems in the first leg yet his poor finishing could yet prove costly. Certainly in Munich, he will need to be unerring in front of goal.
At the other end, it is hard to imagine United being able to keep Bayern out of their area for so much of the contest this time around. Guardilola arguably erred in selecting Thomas Muller rather than a natural striker in Mario Mandzukic against an opponent that was always likely to be ultra-defensive. Mandzukic made an instant impact when coming on a week ago and is all-but certain to start the return leg. His penalty-box presence will give Bayern another valuable option when going forward.
And, while Bayern’s midfield absentees pose a problem, it is only a limited one due to their incredible strength of depth. Moreover, it means that the three midfielders who will start -- Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos and either Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze -- will be more threatening in an attacking sense than the trio deployed in Manchester.
The fact remains that United are the team that needs to score in Munich. United’s pride-restoring first-leg display means they go to Munich with a chance carried by every outsider over a 90 minute encounter. Bigger surprises have happened before and will again. But a more offensively sound Bayern combined with the fact that at some point it is likely United will have to advance out of their shell in search of a goal means that logic dictates Bayern will come out on top with something to spare.
Prediction: Bayern Munich 2-0 Manchester United (3-1 on Aggregate)