Toothless United lose out to Olympiakos
Season takes another turn for the worst for David Moyes’ side as they are beaten in Athens
Alejandro Dominguez’s flick beats the Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea for Olympiakos’ first goal. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Olympiakos 2 Manchester United 0
In a season of lows this is surely a nadir from which Manchester United now have to respond. To lose away to Olympiakos, the Greek champions of a league some way below the standard of England’s top flight, in the easiest of last-16 draws for United, will cause the most serious postmortem yet.
What is alarming for David Moyes is that United never looked close to scoring. Even towards the end, when Chris Smalling put Robin van Persie in for a clear sight of goal, the usually lethal Dutchman fired over. Moyes continues to grasp for answers to the big question of why a team that won the title by 11 points last season is so far off the pace this year.
While the goals from Alejandro Dominguez and Joel Campbell have not yet knocked United out of the Champions League, whether the manager can get the response of three unanswered goals in the second leg at Old Trafford on March 19th has to be in doubt.
The players had walked out to the deafening sound of a sold-out Karaiskakis Stadium for an occasion the excited locals were billing as their match of the year before kick-off.
Moyes took a belt-and-braces approach to selection. With Juan Mata ineligible, he eschewed the more creative talents of Adnan Januzaj, who was not in the match-day squad despite starting at Crystal Palace at the weekend, and Shinji Kagawa – named on the bench – for the steadier Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, either side of Wayne Rooney. Moyes did retain Rio Ferdinand alongside Nemanja Vidic at centre-back and with Patrice Evra and Smalling also selected, United had the same back four from that visit to Selhurst Park.
As might have been expected, Olympiakos had the early play. Evra was booked for deliberate handball when challenging Joel Campbell, the forward loaned by Arsenal. While the resulting free-kick amounted to nothing for the Greek champions, moments later Vidic’s intervention was required to clear lines after successive mistakes from Smalling and Ferdinand.
It was the captain who made a fine last-ditch tackle on Dominguez after the Argentinian playmaker ran at a visiting defence that parted too easily. The opening half was nearly 20 minutes old before United managed to string a few passes together, although when space was finally fashioned for Valencia the winger’s delivery was nowhere near the waiting Rooney.
Most of the play was coming at the other end, with Dominguez finding gaps through which he delighted in slipping through. From one such opening he drove Olympiakos forward and when the ball came to Hernan Perez, he cut inside Smalling and let fly with an effort that missed narrowly.
Once more the fault line in United’s play was proving to be an inability to control midfield and with it the contest. The manner in which Young gave away the ball when a simple pass forward was on was indicative of a problem that has plagued the side all season. It meant Van Persie and Rooney were starved of service that forced the latter back to pick up play to try to do the job of his midfield.
If the sight of the striker passing straight out of touch when attempting to do so was dismal, what happened on 38 minutes was crushing for United.
When Giannis Maniatis, the home captain, took aim from 25 yards it looked speculative but the dire luck Moyes has attracted all season continued as the shot went into a crowd of players in the area and Dominguez reacted quickly to wrong-foot David de Gea with a flick and that was 1-0. The closest United came to an equaliser before the break came from a Rooney free-kick. When it was swung in Kostas Manolas’s header nearly beat Roberto, the home goalkeeper, but the ball sailed over.
Dominguez’s neat flick meant this was the 16th time in Moyes’s inaugural term as manager United had conceded the opening goal.
After nine minutes of the second half the task became even harder. Campbell collected the ball about 10 yards outside United’s area, evaded Michael Carrick’s challenge, then swung a sweet left boot through the ball that beat De Gea to the Spaniard’s right.
On the hour Moyes introduced Shinji Kagawa for Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck for Valencia but, again, it was Olympiakos who threatened when Olaitan came close to beating De Gea and all but consigning United to the most humiliating of exits from the competition. As it is, Moyes faces questions regarding his selection and how, precisely, he can motivate players who ended this game with belief drained.