Manchester United recorded a welcome solid win against Crystal Palace on Saturday, but for David Moyes it is now only the Champions League that can bring some genuine salvation to a torrid first season in charge. Sitting 11 points behind four-placed Liverpool with the same number of games remaining, continuing the club’s 17-year unbroken streak dining at Europe’s top table looks incredibly unlikely through the conventional route. While a return to the Champions League via lifting the trophy in Lisbon looks equally as improbable, a last-16 tie against Olympiakos has given them a strong chance to reach the last eight and potentially even beyond.
Given that he has never previously managed a single game in the competition-proper, one of the most curious aspects of Moyes’ debut season at Old Trafford is that United’s best performances have come in the Champions League. The two wins over Bayer Leverkusen, 4-2 at home and 5-0 in Germany, remain as high watermarks for the team under the former Everton boss. And away to both Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad United put in solid displays to emerge with credible points on the road in Europe.
The competition has suited Moyes’ pragmatic tactics. Over the course of a 38-game league season a conservative approach on the road will not be enough in getting the points required to win the title. But it works fine with the Champions League format, both in the group stage and the knockout rounds. Moyes will surely gladly take a draw, especially a score draw in Greece on Tuesday, and back his side to get a win at Old Trafford.
They have every chance of achieving that, although a win in Piraeus to put the tie firmly under their control should also be within their sights. United arguably got the kindest draw for the round-of-16 when it was made in December and it has only come to look more favorable since. In January the Greek champions sold their top scorer Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham for a massive £13 million as well as the talented former Manchester City attacking midfielder Vladimir Weiss, who had only arrived on free transfer last summer, for more than £4 million to Qatari club Lekhwiya Sports Club.
Olympiakos are already on the cusp of securing their 16th Greek championship in the past 18 seasons -- they hold a 23-point lead over their nearest rivals at the summit. Thus it is hard to read the club’s January business as anything other than an acceptance that they are satisfied with reaching the Champions League knockout phase but have little expectation of reaching the last eight for only the second time in their history.
Particularly given Manchester United’s struggles in 2014, it is a disappointing lack of ambition, even if, from a financial sense, it is very much understandable.
Mitroglou, in particular will be a big miss on Tuesday. After an opening 4-1 home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, the striker fired Olympiakos’s Champions League campaign to life with a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at Anderlecht. He had also scored 14 goals in the league before his departure. His absence may not have been so keenly felt if not for the fact that the Greek Super League’s second top scorer, the much-traveled former Barcelona and Real Madrid striker Javier Saviola, is ruled out through injury. And, as if that weren’t enough, the man signed on loan in January to replace Mitroglou, experienced Paraguayan Nelson Valdez, is also set to miss out through injury.
Those fitness concerns should be music to the ears of a United defense that has its own injury worries. With Phil Jones and Jonny Evans unlikely to recover in time having missed training on Monday and Rafael still a significant doubt, Rio Ferdinand is expected to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the back four. The best partnership in Europe when United last lifted the European Cup in 2008, the pair’s decline has become increasingly steep this season and their lack of pace can be exposed, while their aging legs can also lead to more reckless decision making in an attempt to compensate.
For Olympiakos, Argentine veteran Alejandro Dominguez will support likely striker Michael Olaitan. But it is the man on-loan from United’s Premier League rivals Arsenal, Joel Campbell, whose pace and direct running may present the biggest problem for United’s defense. In truth, though, they should not have the weapons to hurt United, even if they come out inspired by what is sure to be a raucous atmosphere at the Karaiskakis Stadium.
Going forward United will also have a key absentee. Juan Mata, who had his most influential game yet for his new club on Saturday since his big-money January transfer, is ineligible due to his participation earlier in the competition with Chelsea. An obvious replacement for the Spaniard would be Shinji Kagawa. The playmaker was integral to both of United’s wins over Bayer Leverkusen, yet has not played a single minute since Mata’s arrival. It seems likely, though, that Moyes will play at least one of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, both of whom he deems more reliable in terms of their defensive duties down the flanks.
With the likes of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie spearheading their attack, United have the opportunity to put the tie to bed in Greece. As it is, even with Moyes’ likely conservative approach, against a severely depleted Olympiakos side, United should still come away with a positive result.
Prediction: Olympiakos 0-1 Manchester United