Strange season, this. So poor has Manchester United’s Premier League campaign been that many suspect even the Reds’ 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday could be another false dawn. Yet, the cynicism surrounding United’s domestic campaign has, in part at least, dissipated on European nights. After all, David Moyes’ side is unbeaten in six Champions League games to date this season, including scoring nine past Bayern Leverkusen in two games.
The knock-out stages are new to Moyes though, who was only once able to guide Everton into Europe’s premier competition – and then only to a play-off defeat at Villareal’s hands. Yet, the step up in class has been seamless for Moyes this season, with United securing victories over Leverkusen, Real Sociedad and Shaktar Donetsk at the group stage.
Olympiakos represents perhaps a more difficult test still, with Míchel González’ side losing only to Paris Saint German at the group stage this season. The Greek side may not be favourites to progress against United, but victories over Anderlecht and Benfica secured second place in Group C and qualification for the Round of 16.
And with United struggling since the turn of the year Olympiakos coach Michel, the former Spanish international midfielder, is confident that his side could put the Reds under pressure in what is likely to be a testing atmosphere at the 32,000 capacity Karaiskakis Stadium.
With the return leg in three week’s time sandwiched between United’s fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City David Moyes’ outfit will do well to secure a first leg lead. It is, says Michel, a game in which the pressure resides with United rather than the greeks.
“Their Premier League situation could be an incentive to them or it could be a burden on their shoulders, we know there’s lots at stake for Manchester United in this match,” Michel said on Monday.
“This kind of situation may weigh too much on their players’ shoulders. United cannot afford any mistakes tomorrow given their position in the Premier League. Experience counts but I think it’s an advantage that a lot of our players don’t have experience at this level. The passion we have displayed to get here will guide us and with all due respect we can create problems for United.”
United’s challenge is exacerbated by Juan Mata’s absence for the visitors. The diminutive Spaniard is cup tied having already appeared for Chelsea in the Champions League. In the Spaniard’s stead Antonio Valencia is likely to be recalled, disrupting an attacking quartet of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Mata that started together for the first time at Palace on Saturday.
Rooney celebrated his new £15 million-a-season contract with an admission that his side has struggled this season. United’s 10 defeats in all competitions has seen the Reds drop out of contention for next season’s Champions League and out of both domestic cups.
Elsewhere, Rafael could return after missing two games with concussion, although both Phil Jones and Jonny Evans are injured and missed the trip to Greece. It means Moyes is likely to change his back four once against this season, with Chris Smalling moving inside, Rio Ferdinand dropping to the bench and the Brazilian starting at right-back.
Meanwhile, in central midfield Tom Cleverley could return with Marouanne Fellaini having completed almost 90 minutes against Palace after months out with wrist and groin injuries.
“I’m looking forward to the game. I was fortunate to watch Arsenal and Bayern Munich and I really enjoy Champions League games,” said Moyes on Monday.
“To get through was first and foremost important. To win the group was an added edge. Now I’m looking forward to this one. It’s a really tough game, Olympiakos have a good record here and we know, over the tie, we’ll have to play well to qualify.
“Olympiakos did very well against PSG and Benfica. They came through a difficult group, they have a great home record here. We know it will be a difficult night. They have a big support. It’s far from an easy match.”
There is better news for the visitors in the hosts’ missing players, leaving Olympiakos’ potentially light on goals having sold leading scorer Konstantinos Mitroglou to Fulham during the January transfer window, and with Argentinian striker Javier Saviola unavailable through. Not that the home side has struggled to score goals this season – 103 have come in the domestic league campaign to date.
Yet, Olympiakos begin the tie with United some 23 points ahead of rivals in the Super League having dominated domestic competition for more than a decade. Mitroglou’s sale proffers the impression of a club secure in domestic success and satisfied with reaching the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Mitroglou scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at Anderlecht and 14 further goals in the league before departure to west London.
The 40-times Greek champion is seeking to reach the Champions League quarter-final for the first time since 1999 in a first appearance in the knockout stages for five years. It is a goal inhibited by history; United having won each of the four previous meetings between the clubs. The Reds secured a 2-0 victory in the 2001/02 group stage when David Beckham and Andy Cole scored. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won 3-0 at Old Trafford in the return.
But there are some familiar faces in the Greeks’ squad, including former United goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who played for the Reds between 2001 and 2005. The Northern Irishman is remembered for a difficult period at Old Trafford, but sees a weakness in the current United incarnation.
Carroll is likely start on the bench on Tuesday night after joining the Greek side from OFI Crete in summer 2012.
“They look nervous,” said Carroll on Monday. “Every time you watch them this season you just feel that the opposition will score. It’s weird – you don’t associate that with Manchester United.”
That is United’s new reality of course, although seemingly not always in European competition. Strange season indeed.
Olympiakos Piraeus v Manchester United, Champions League, Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, 7.45pm, 25 February 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
Olympiakos (4-3-3): Roberto; Maniatis, Papazoglou, Papadopoulos, Bong; Ndinga, Pérez, Machado; Campbell, Olaitan, Domínguez
Olympiakos: Carroll, Manolas, Ibagaza, Samaris, Fuster, Marcano, Pelé, Valdéz, Holebas
United: Lindegaard, Giggs, Hernández, Büttner, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Kagawa, Cleverley, Welbeck, Fellaini
Olympiakos 0 Draw 0 United 4
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore, Gianluca Cariolato
Additional assistant referees: Paolo Mazzoleni, Paolo Valeri
Fourth official: Alessandro Giallatini