The past weekend provided a stark reminder of how far and how quickly Manchester United have fallen. A 3-0 defeat to their biggest rivals at a home stadium that was once an imposing fortress but has become an inviting chance for barren-streak ending was startlingly comprehensive yet remarkably routine. And things could yet hit a yet new nadir on Wednesday.
Olympiakos will come to Old Trafford with a 2-0 advantage and having just succeeded where Manchester United have so woefully fallen short this season, by maintaining their domestic dominance with yet another title win.
The long-neglected squad David Moyes inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson can perhaps excuse him not retaining the Premier League title. Yet, to be languishing in seventh place, 18 points off the summit, should be treated with far more alarm than it is seemingly being done so inside the corridors of power at the Theatre of Dreams. Moyes has said ahead of the second leg with Olympiakos that he doesn’t even feel the need to discuss his job security with the club’s owners. It is an astonishing comment given the continued new levels of ineptitude the team has sunk to this season. While Moyes continues to talk of the future and the heights the club will return to, there are few specifics being uttered about his long-term vision.
On the pitch the evidence is even less. Moyes has spent £65 million on two players who he doesn’t appear to have any idea of how to incorporate into his team. Marouane Fellaini has looked ill-fitting from the outset, with his lack of dynamism hardly complimenting partner Michael Carrick. Only when pushing the big Belgian forward and playing to his strengths in the air has he looked purposeful. Those tactics, though, are not expected to be part of the club's future.
Juan Mata, meanwhile, has been stuck out wide meaning his undoubted talents are denied the chance to truly influence games. The pragmatism that always made Moyes a bad fit for the Old Trafford hot seat has been seen in his failure to entrust Mata, Adnan Januzaj or Shinji Kagawa with a central playmaking role. Instead, he continues to out his faith in Robin van Persie, who looks thoroughly discontented, and Wayne Rooney, who Moyes has bent over backward to placate despite his repeated itchy feet and a history of questionable fitness habits.
Moyes’ conservatism was in evidence in Greece three weeks ago when, already without the ineligible Mata, he left Januzaj at home and went with the two functional wingers, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, both of who have endured torrid campaigns. United sat back with remarkable passivity against a team that, despite how well they did in the first leg, are undoubtedly limited at this rarified level. The tactics appeared to infuse into his players a desperate sense of lifelessness that saw them give the ball away repeatedly.
United were similarly lackluster against Liverpool. If they are to get the goals they need to overturn their deficit against Olympiakos, which should be eminently achievable, then there has to be a dramatic shift. The worry is that Moyes simply does not have it in him to be so bold, to take the handbrake off.
Much, too, of course depends on Manchester United’s opponents. After a proactive performance for much of the encounter in Piraeus, Olympiakos appeared to become wary of the stature of their opponents rather than the actual team in front of them in the closing stages. Indeed, Van Perise missed a glorious late chance to pull a goal back.
Coach Michel must ensure his players retain a sense of forward purpose. If they do that then, as United are inevitably forced to push in search of the goals required, they have the players with the direct running in the first-leg’s star man Chori Dominguez and fellow-goalscorer Joel Campbell to get a goal on the break that should be enough to bring Moyes’s reign to a new low.
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Olympiakos