Manchester United’s miserable season has sunk to unfathomable depths following a painful Champions League defeat in Greece which leaves the club with one of the biggest conundrums in its history: How to completely overhaul a squad that simply isn’t good enough without being able to offer their replacements European football next season.
So much of the criticism so far this year has fallen on the shoulders of manager David Moyes; and certainly judging by this woeful performance, it would be hard to offer up a convincing defence of the former Everton man, who admitted this was “the worst we’ve played in Europe”.
“We never really got going and didn’t deserve anything,” he admitted.
“I didn’t see that performance coming. The one good thing is there’s still a second game. Old Trafford’s seen some great nights in the past and we’ll hopefully see another one.”
But United’s performance in Athens was so half-hearted, so tepid, that the real conclusion should be that the players at the Scotsman’s disposal are no longer of the quality required to make a serious challenge at this level.
When you consider United’s form in the Premier League has been so bad — currently sitting sixth 15 points behind the leaders — it was no secret that winning the Champions League was probably their only realistic chance of playing in the competition next season; and yet that wasn’t enough to inspire a group of players who went into this tournament as English champions.
Perhaps with the exception of Wayne Rooney, working hard in a deep-lying role, there were signs all over the pitch that — even against a poor Olympiacos side — United’s line-up wasn’t strong enough to win the tie, let alone vie for the trophy.
Tom Cleverley, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were poor beyond belief, Rio Ferdinand looked to be feeling his age, Nemanja Vidic — who will be leaving this summer anyway, made glaring mistakes; even Robin van Persie was largely anonymous and wasted the only real chance that came his way, late in the second half.
At left-back, Patrice Evra is starting to feel the pace at the age of nearly 33, while Chris Smalling is a better centre-half than he is a right-back — and let’s face it, he is not world class in either position. The list goes on; and it doesn’t make happy reading for United fans far who are used to far better.
Olympiacos’s opening goal after 38 minutes summed up the malaise. United had started the match determined to quieten the home crowd but slowed to such a pace they almost sent themselves to sleep — backing off as the Greeks began a counter-attack following a poor Evra clearance and then watching lethargically as Giannis Maniatis’ shot was cleverly deflected home by Alejandro Dominguez.
The response lacked energy and belief, too, because instead of fighting back in the second half, United again looked off colour as Joel Campbell, a player on loan from Arsenal, beat Ferdinand, nutmegged Michael Carrick and curled home a 55th minute shot that sends Olympiacos to Old Trafford in confident mood for the second leg
It is not beyond the realms of fantasy that United could still win 3-0 at Old Trafford and reach the quarter-finals; but it is almost unthinkable, given the lack of quality in the team, they could reach the final in Lisbon and challenge the likes of Barcelona and Bayern.
So for all the pressure on Moyes today, his biggest problem is not dealing with the fallout of an embarrassing defeat but working out his transfer policy in summer and pondering how he gets six top-class players to Old Trafford with no Champions League — and probably no Europa League — to offer them. The best he can hope for is that this was United’s lowest moment, their nadir; even that’s not guaranteed.
OLYMPIACOS: Roberto, Leandro Salino, Manolas, Marcano, Holebas, Maniatis, Ndinga, Campbell (Fuster 67), Dominguez, Perez (Valdez 86), Olaitan.
MAN UTD: De Gea, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Cleverley (Kagawa 60), Carrick, Valencia (Welbeck 60), Rooney, Young, van Persie.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy).
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