Job Done, But Only A Small Step To Redemption

There were obvious positives for United, but supporters will be only too aware that we have been here before. Olympiakos and Galatasaray were both utterly abysmal...

Last Updated: 20/03/14 at 12:29 Post Comment

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Winners

Manchester United
A performance that rekindled memories of the old Manchester United, fighting back from the brink with intensity and persistence. Olympiakos may have handed David Moyes a much-needed victory on a silver platter, but he'll take any morsel of luck he can get at the moment. At least on this occasion, United greedily gobbled up the gifts they were presented.

It was a display somewhat reminiscent of the 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad in the group stage. United didn't show a great deal of quality - indeed, Olympiakos created the better chances in an open first half - but they tried to move the ball at speed and take advantage of some excellent movement from Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.

That United recorded the second-fewest number of passes (247) out of all 16 teams in the second-round second legs (Arsenal made the fewest, with 234 against Bayern Munich) points to two things. Firstly, the plan was to play it early to try and get in behind Olympiakos; Ryan Giggs' exquisite long balls did exactly that with Van Persie, and then Wayne Rooney, allowed unforgivable amounts of space around the visitors' penalty area.

The second point is that the champions retreated back into their shell as soon as Van Persie completed his match-winning hat-trick - thanks largely to Roberto's bizarre failure to dive. Moyes returned to his micro-managing ways, gesturing to the players to tighten up and pulling everyone back for corners, which prevented United from breaking on the counter-attack. They mustered just three attempts in the last 35 minutes, compared to seven for the visitors.

It was fascinating to watch. No sooner had the turning point arrived, than it once again disappeared as the confidence visibly drained from United and grew in Olympiakos. This was United's season in microcosm - hope followed by desperation. A lasting sense that they are simply too cautious and unsure of their own strengths to threaten any of the teams they might face in the quarter-finals.

The truth is Moyes set the tone for a season of fearful performances very early into his tenure. His complaints about the Premier League fixture list before a ball had been kicked revealed a sense of dread that one should never expect from the manager of Manchester United. He may have been correct when he admitted in September that United are 'not at the level' required to win the Champions League, but to betray his players in public was a gross error of judgement.

That, coupled with United's 'dull' performances this season - a word used by Gary Neville on Wednesday night - ensures that Moyes' buoyant reaction to the victory should be taken with a pinch of salt. Sure, allow him his moment - United did everything that was asked of them in a rare showing of competence. But the manager's claims that the club can now go all the way are terribly far-fetched. "Hopefully we can do it, I don't see any reason why not," he said. "I think this club is capable of it."

It will be tough, just as United are likely to find Saturday's trip to West Ham and Tuesday's Manchester derby. The Hammers may have lost back-to-back matches to Stoke and Everton, but Sam Allardyce will be relishing the chance to out-tactic Moyes. And we are all aware by now of United's tendency to fall back after hinting that they might finally kick on.

The 4-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the group stage was followed by a 4-1 reverse at Manchester City. In the next match, hope returned with a 1-0 win over Liverpool in the League Cup. Three days later, the 2-1 home defeat to West Brom, a result that remained the Baggies' only victory on the road until last Saturday's 2-1 success at Swansea.

In November, Leverkusen were steamrollered again, with Shinji Kagawa instrumental in a 5-0 victory. The next game brought a hard-fought 2-2 draw at Tottenham as Wayne Rooney bagged a brace. The striker has scored only three times in 15 appearances since. The champions lost their following two matches 1-0 at home to Everton and Newcastle.

The picture is clear. A six-match winning run succeeded those damaging home defeats, but the next twist was a run of five defeats and a penalty shoot-out exit to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final in the first eight matches of 2014. Victories over Crystal Palace and West Brom steadied the ship, and then came the nadir of Moyes' reign on Sunday, as Liverpool barely had to get out of second gear to cruise to three goals and three points at Old Trafford.

So forgive Winners and Losers for not yet being convinced. Forgive us for not praising United's 'spirit' and 'desire' against Olympiakos when such qualities should be the bare minimum and have been for so many years at Old Trafford. Far bigger tests lie in wait - on Wednesday we didn't see nearly enough to suggest that United are able to pass them.


Robin van Persie
More involved, for a start. He looked interested, eager to make runs and ready to take chances when they were presented to him. Olympiakos' marking was criminal, but there were signs that Van Persie is coming out of his slump. We're unlikely to read (or write) any more columns calling for the striker to be dropped in the next couple of weeks, at least.


David De Gea
A tremendous double save to deny Olympiakos just moments before Van Persie poked in United's second. Aside from his dreadful error against Sunderland in the League Cup, De Gea has been the outstanding performer for United this season.


Chelsea
The second English beneficiaries of an opponent that didn't belong in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Looking at the mouthwatering line-up for the quarter-finals, it's a relief to see that the cream has finally risen to the top.

This was an important result for Chelsea - not only in terms of its immediate significance - and Samuel Eto'o's fourth-minute strike proved to be an important goal, setting the tone for the evening. The last thing the Blues needed after Saturday's defeat to Aston Villa was another arduous 90 minutes in preparation for the forthcoming clash at home to Arsenal. Instead, it was a case of returning to home comforts, putting the slippers on by half-time and conserving energy for the Gunners.

Galatasaray offered very little, so it is difficult to apportion a great deal of credit to Chelsea following a tie in which they were always expected to triumph. Jose Mourinho will have been encouraged by glimpses of Oscar rediscovering his form, while Eto'o's second goal in his last two appearances provided a timely boost. Given the way the striker's season has gone, we should now expect him to go on another eight-match barren run. Sarah Winterburn argued that he was an excellent 'stop-gap striker' but he is far from reliable enough for this challenge.

Where the goals are going to come from in the Premier League and Champions League run-in is certainly a worry for Mourinho. Eto'o's role is not merely about finding the back of the net as he creates space for the three men behind him and links well with Eden Hazard (perhaps best demonstrated in the 3-0 win over Newcastle), but a better strike-rate would certainly be appreciated.

There are similar concerns over Hazard, who has scored only once in his last eight games and in only three of his last 16 appearances. Oscar hasn't contributed a goal or assist in the Premier League since the win over Southampton on January 1, while Fernando Torres, who turned 30 on Thursday, has enjoyed as many birthdays as goals in the past two months.

While plenty have been critical of Arsene Wenger for failing to address Arsenal's striker problem - and rightly so - the very same issue could end up costing Chelsea in the quarter-finals and title-deciding encounters against Arsenal and Liverpool. It's highly unlikely that the Gunners will gift Mourinho's side victory in the manner Spurs contrived two weeks ago.


Real Madrid
The hard work was made easy with the 6-1 victory in Gelsenkirchen. Tuesday was simply a formality, a match in which Real looked to maintain their stunning form - a 32-match unbeaten run that stretches back to the 2-1 loss to Barcelona in October - and avoid any costly injuries.

The first target was achieved as Cristiano Ronaldo scored another brace to extend his lead over Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the top scorers chart. The second aim sadly wasn't, with phenomenal talent Jese Rodriguez suffering a cruciate ligament tear that will keep him out for the rest of the season, destroying the 21-year-old's World Cup hopes.

"It's a big loss," said Carlo Ancelotti.


Zenit St Petersburg
Out, following a 5-4 aggregate defeat to Borussia Dortmund, but Wednesday's victory in Germany will offer encouragement to new manager Andre Villas-Boas, who is set to take charge in two weeks' time.


Losers


Marouane Fellaini
Included in the Losers after David Moyes entrusted his £27.5m midfielder to come on and fall over a lot in the final five minutes. Getting the best out of his two signings would be a start in the manager proving that he has what it takes to help United turn the corner for good.

Incidentally, it will be interesting to see what changes he makes for the trip to West Ham. After a half-blind Antonio Valencia performed admirably on Wednesday, is there a possibility that Moyes could leave Juan Mata on the bench? That would be quite something.


Borussia Dortmund
Back-to-back 2-1 home defeats will be a concern to Jurgen Klopp. Considering the losses to Borussia Monchengladbach and Zenit were the third and fourth games of Mats Hummels' return, Klopp may have been expecting better defensive displays from his team. There was no stopping Hulk's thunderous drive on Wednesday, but the way Salomon Rondon evaded Hummels for Zenit's winner was worrying. We simply don't know which Dortmund will turn up in the quarter-finals.


Olympiakos
'If there is any hope for United ahead of the second leg, it is that they can't play much worse. Roy Keane's final line was that they made Olympiakos look good, but that wasn't true. Olympiakos looked poor, repeatedly making bad decisions and giving the ball away, and yet United were somehow worse. They made themselves look terrible.'

This was the reaction to United's first-leg defeat on these pages, and Olympiakos proved it to be a fair assessment on Wednesday as they gifted David Moyes' team the victory they required. In Jose Holebas and Hernan Perez, the Greek champions possess two of the worst players ever to compete in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. It's no surprise that both proved costly, with the former allowing Robin van Persie to open the scoring from the spot and the latter wasting a gilt-edged chance to grab a vital away goal.

Olympiakos will rue their missed opportunities, but had United not been able to beat them by the necessary three-goal margin, it would have been the worst of all Moyes' failures. They are simply a terrible team and would be no higher than the middle of the Championship if they played in England. That is the inconvenient truth that many will try to forget as they instead focus on the hope of a turning point at Old Trafford.


Roberto Mancini
Two matches of Mancini is quite enough for one season, thank you very much. His Galatasaray side were desperately poor in their mis-match against Chelsea, which makes it even more surprising that they somehow managed to progress from a group containing Juventus.

Matthew Stanger - follow him on Twitter

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