Olympiakos capitalized on a performance of stunning ineptitude and listlessness by Manchester United to establish a 2-0 lead to take to Old Trafford after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Even by the standards of what has been a torrid first season under David Moyes, this was a display that was hard to countenance. Both sterile and nervous in possession, Untied were a shadow of the European force that they have been in the past two decades. Olympiakos, admirably playing the shambolic opponents in front of them rather than their daunting reputation, took advantage with a goal in each half from Alejandro Dominguez and, as if to add insult to injury, on-loan Arsenal forward Joel Campbell.
It was no less than the Greek champions deserved. And having never previously won a knockout tie in Europe’s premier competition, they head to Manchester as favorites to reach the last eight.
With Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia given the task of performing diligent duties up and down the flanks, at the expense of the more inventive Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa, and Robin van Persie left isolated in attack, Moyes’ safety-first intentions on the road were clear. Yet, in his first knockout tie in Europe, the failure to show any great desire for an away goal could prove hugely costly. Just a solitary chance of note was created throughout the 90 minutes and that was blasted over late on by Van Persie.
It is hard not to think that the negative tactics seeped through into what was a purposeless performance from those on the field. Chris Smalling, Rio Ferdinand and Tom Cleverley were particularly conspicuous in their lack of composure on the ball, but a lack of energy ran throughout the team. The Champions League has provided Moyes’ best moments this season and promised his one real chance of salvation this campaign, yet it has now been the stage of his latest nadir in the United hot seat.
The signs were ominous from the start. United were passing the ball around with little eye toward getting forward, yet through Ferdinand and Smalling were still grossly sloppy with the ball. When Smalling slipped on halfway and Dominguez was allowed to run past three players all the way into the box it was a sign of what was to come. On that occasion Nemanja Vidic, one of the few players to emerge with any credit, saved the visitors with a fine last-ditch challenge.
Michael Carrick was playing far deeper than normal and Cleverley was even less demonstrative than usual, leading to Rooney coming back into midfield to try and spark things. It meant Van Persie cut a forlorn figure. The fact that he had only 24 touches throughout the 90 minutes spoke volumes. It was starling predictable and outdated fare from the Premier League champions, with everything in straight lines.
Olympiakos were the side trying to force the issue, but without Kostas Mitroglou -- sold in January -- and Javier Saviola -- injured -- they struggled to find a cutting edge. Yet they still had enough to bother these opponents.
In the 38th minute, United paid for their passivity. With no one closing him down, Giannis Maniatis took the chance to fire in a low effort from 25 yards. The shot tame was in the extreme, and there appeared little danger, but a clever instinctive flick from Dominguez had just enough pace to take it rolling past a wrong-footed David de Gea.
After such a poor first-half display, Moyes will surely have had stern words at the half-time interval. If that happened, there was no sign of it having any impact after the restart. Just nine minutes into the second half, the extraordinary lethargy of the visitors was exposed once more.
Fittingly it was Cleverley who conceded possession out on the left and the ball was easily worked to the edge of United’s box and back to Campbell. The Costa Rican, yet to make a competitive appearance for Arsenal, put the ball simply through the legs of United’s other central midfielder, Carrick, before curling a fine left-footed effort past De Gea.
Striker Michael Olaitan fired wide with a half-chance to make it 3-0 and possibly put the tie out of reach. Still, despite the hugely different complexion an away goal would have put on the tie, United continued to lack any real intensity to get forward.But with eight minutes remaining Van Persie had a chance that could yet prove to be a pivotal moment. The Dutchman did everything right to create a shooting angle in the box, but blasted wastefully over on his right foot.
It was just United’s seventh shot at goal in the 90 minutes, with just one on target. The tie should not be beyond United’s reach at Old Trafford in the second leg, but it will need a performance in drastic contrast to what they produced in Piraeus.