Manchester United host newly-crowned Greek Champions Olympiacos under the Old Trafford floodlights tomorrow night aiming to overturn a two goal first leg deficit and progress to the last eight of the Champions League.
There have been many classic European nights at the Theatre of Dreams over the years and in the week of the 30th anniversary of United’s historic 3-0 triumph over Barcelona, after losing the first leg 2-0 at the Nou Camp, the Reds need to summon up similar spirit as Olympiacos come to town if they are to reach the quarter finals.
David Moyes’ side come into the contest at their lowest point this season off the back of an embarrassment at the hands of Liverpool which all but ended any lingering hopes of qualifying for the next seasons Champions League via fourth place amidst a backdrop of divisions within the squad and bust-ups galore.
United were not too far from their typical levels of performance this season, with Fellaini, Carrick and Vidic all having nightmare afternoons against the old enemy. Tactically, Moyes was outwitted by opposite number Brendan Rodgers while his side were easily outplayed, and if this season has taught us anything it is that the Reds are unlikely to produce a meaningful reaction in the face of adversity.
Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, arguably United’s two best central defenders, both sat out training today so will not play a part, meaning Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic are likely to retain their places at the heart of the defence after a testing game together against Liverpool.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata is cup-tied while Marouane Fellaini is almost certain to drop out after turning in a real stinker at the weekend and Adnan Januzaj, who has been out of sorts of late, could follow suit. Moyes indicated that Shinji Kagawa, a man who has been on the periphery in recent weeks, would play some part and Ryan Giggs’ creativity from deep could see him feature in midfield.
Olympiacos’ fortunes this season have been the near polar opposite to United’s with the Piraeus outfit wrapping up a record 41st Greek Super League title at the weekend, losing just two games in the process.
The Super League was wrapped up at the Karaiskakis Stadium with a 2-0 victory against Panthrakikos but only after back-to-back losses against fellow Greek heavy-hitters PAOK Salonika and Eternal Derby rivals Panathaniakos.
Coach Michel has a couple of fitness concerns ahead of the match, with Javier Saviola still out injured, but Nelson Valdez is now recovered and will lead the line. Veteran midfielder Ariel Ibagaza is out, and so is 21-year-old attacker Michael Olaitan.
The records books do make for good reading with United winning all four of their previous home games against Greek opposition and we have won 13 out of the last 15 knock-out games at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Olympiacos have lost all seven of their previous matches on English soil, conceding at least twice in each.
United’s best route through to the last eight is to prevent Olympiacos from scoring but Old Trafford has hardly been a fortress this season and the defence has rarely looked anything but creaky all term. Victory needs to be by a clear three goal margin, something which has happened just five times for the Reds this season.
Progression is not quite mission impossible and there is certainly the talent within the squad to see off a distinctly average Olympiacos team if the personnel, tactics and motivation is right.
That being said, there have been plenty of times this season where the squad simply haven’t applied themselves and it is really difficult to see United winning the tie.
United should win on the night but my money is on the Reds leaving themselves too much to do after a costly first leg showing and what’s the bet that come full-time, that late Robin van Persie miss in Piraeus three weeks ago is a deciding factor?
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Olympiacos