UEFA Champions League
Olympiakos 2 Manchester United 0
Faced with arguably the most straighforward of draws in the last sixteen of the Champions League, United contrived to make things very difficult for themselves with an insipid performance in Greece, leaving them requiring a huge performance at Old Trafford in the second leg to have any hope of staying in the competition.
United looked shaky from the first whistle and, had it not been for a couple of smart interventions from Vidic, might have gone behind early in the game. As it was, the Reds held out until late in the half, but lacked urgency and initiative going forward, and were never entirely secure defensively against an Olympiakos side who always looked a yard quicker. When the goal eventually came it involved the kind of quick thinking and imagination that United were lacking: a fairly tame speculative effort was cleverly deflected towards goal by the lively Dominguez, whose flick completely wrong-footed De Gea.
It could scarcely be argued that United deserved any more from a first half in which ordinary opposition had, not for the first time this season, been allowed to control the match comfortably. If the plan had been to slow the game down and silence the crowd, a laudable enough aim in an away European tie, then you don’t achieve that by giving away possession so sloppily and so often. Aside from Vidic, it was hard to pick a good performance out from a United player in the first half, but there were plenty of poor ones: Rooney was barely involved, Smalling and Ferdinand both looked fragile in defence and Valencia and Young produced very little from the wings.
It got worse in the second half. United came out again looking disorganised and lacking ideas and went further behind in the 55th minute when Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal, struck a sublime swerving effort just inside De Gea’s right post. Although Kagawa and Welbeck came on immediately afterwards, replacing the ineffective Cleverley and Valencia, United continued to offer very little in response. Too often balls were played to team mates under pressure, or simply to the opposition; when a United player was found, it was invariably via a back pass or a square ball. Rare forward movements were easily picked off by the well-organised Greeks.
United found an attacking threat in the last ten minutes and passed up a golden opportunity to snatch what might have proved a vital away goal late on. Smalling’s cross found Van Persie in the area who, with only the keeper to beat, smashed his shot high over the bar. The chance had been a long time coming and had fallen to the right player, but he, like so many of his colleagues, was out of sorts on the night and unable to take advantage of what ought to have been a routine goalscoring opportunity.
Two-goal deficits do get overturned in Europe, of course, and there’s no question that the opposition are highly beatable. The huge question mark, though, is whether this United side is capable of such heroics. If not, then Old Trafford on 19 March might turn out to be our last taste of Champions League football for some time.