It wasn’t even necessarily the result itself. A two-nil defeat in the first leg of a knockout competition can, with the right planning, be overcome. It was the nature of it. This was a Manchester United so devoid of life that it is possible to draw the conclusion that the team that strolled to the Premier League title at the end of last season has been kidnapped and replaced with imposters from the Planet Mediocre. Once Olympiakos had secured a two goal lead within ten minutes of the start of the second half – thanks, as if enough injury hadn’t been heaped upon them already, to a quite delightful goal from their Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell – the home side didn’t even really need to shut up shop. Manchester United had nothing in return, and nothing in reserve.
And so it is that, before even the month of February is even out, the club that dominated English football so relentlessly for the last two decades sees its season spluttering to one final halt. Of course, it’s possible that David Moyes’ team could yet turn this tie around. We’re at half-time in this round of sixteen match, and the second leg will be played on home territory, after all. Quite where the inner reserves, that extra few millilitres of determination, are going to come from, however, is just about anybody’s guess. This evening in Athens, Manchester United’s team played as if it was bored with football and breaking out of that fug feels if it will be more than a mere challenge.
Perhaps most significantly on an evening such as this, there are no excuses for this team. It’s certainly and obviously true to say that making your club a commercial juggernaut carries plenty of advantages, but perhaps the sole disadvantage of such fortune is that the opportunity to blame circumstance is vastly reduced. Manchester United has had continual success on the pitch, Champions League football and Premier League football for more than twenty years. In the overall scheme of things, Manchester United Football Club has every advantage that any football club could wish for. It has the money. It has the prestige. It has the 76,000 crowds and the global support. But when the chips have been down this season, the team has failed to present itself.
This, perhaps, has one significant effect on the teams that they’re playing against – the spell is broken. In years gone by, it sometimes felt as if the psychology of Manchester United’s opponents could be almost as important as Manchester United’s players themselves. Olympiakos played this evening without any apparent fear of defeat, hustling and hassling, allowing the visitors to make their own mistakes, a trait which Manchester United’s players seemed more than happy to oblige with. This has been a season during which plenty of Premier League clubs have shown similar chracteristics. The big difference, however, is that this is the Champions League. This is the tournament in which the players have to pull themselvees out of the fug in which they find themselves. And tonight, they didn’t.
There will be much talk of David Moyes’ shortcomings over the next twenty-four hours or so, and when we consider the predictability of so many of the tactics thrown around at Old Trafford in recent weeks, this is unsurprising. As easy a target as the manager is for the ire of the supporters this evening, though, there surely comes a point at which the players themselves have to bear at least a share of the burden for this sort of lethargic performance. Wayne Rooney, having just signed a contract the obscenity of which is another article for another time, has no excuses any more. This evening he cut a familiar figure, dropping further nd further back into an already congested midfield in apparent frustration at the lack of involvement that he was getting in the game. But £300,000 a week, whether he likes it or not, eliminates all but personal responsibility.
To focus on Manchester United’s shortcomings, however, would be be unfair on Olympiakos, who were confident, assertive, well-organised and, significantly ran down the club for the final thirty-five minutes with the minimum of fuss. Buoyed by their this success, what will their reaction be in the second leg? If they play at Old Trafford as they did this evening, there is no reason why they couldn’t run this tie down with ease in the second leg. They showed precisely the determination and discipline that Manchester United supporters would surely wish that their own team would this season.
Perhaps this the low for Manchester United this season. After all, it’s difficult to imagine their season could get a great deal worse than this. And whilst the players should – and perhaps now will – carry their fair share of the an for tonight’s debacle, the position of David Moyes will surely never get more uncertain than this. It has been suggested that the end of last season saw the end of a dynasty, and that Manchester United might take a while to build a new identity that doesn’t revolve around the cult of Sir Alex Ferguson. It was, however, largely accepted that the team would still be comfortable in the pursuit for a place in next year’s Champions League.
Instead, their biggest rivals and sparring partners of recent years, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool seem destined to hoover up the four places at that particular trough for next season, and the club’s apparent reticence in the transfer market in recent seasons – expansive gestures such as offering Wayne Rooney more money than he will ever likely be able to spend or the signature of Juan Mata, an undoubtedly talented player but surely not the one that this team needed at that time, notwithstanding – means that there are few guarantees that the Glazers will overhaul the squad to the extent that many supporters will now surely believe they should. Who will be next targets as the blame game fixes its sights: The manager? The players? The owners? Quite possibly all three.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.