March 18, 2014 10:51:29 am
If history was the only deciding factor then Manchester United would be highly fancied to overturn their 2-0 first leg defeat against Olympiakos and reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League on Wednesday.
But the reality for manager David Moyes and his stuttering team is that present form, rather than past successes, will have a far bigger influence at Old Trafford.
United’s unimpressive season reached a new low on Sunday when they were crushed 3-0 at home by bitter rivals Liverpool, a result that left last season’s champions seventh in the Premier League with just a remote possibility of a top-four finish.
Their only realistic hope of competing alongside Europe’s elite next season would now appear to be by somehow winning the competition for a fourth time in May, starting by knocking Olympiakos out on Wednesday.
“The players are well aware of what it means on Wednesday and what we have got to do,” Moyes said.
“We’ve got something to go for so hopefully we can do that.”
Misfiring United, who last failed to qualify for the Champions League 18 years ago, have no guarantees at all of achieving their aim against the Greeks who have just won their domestic title for the fourth successive season, the 16th time in 18 campaigns they have ended as champions and the 41st in all.
Their head-to-head record, and the Greek side’s woeful record on the road against English clubs, does offer hope.
Until Olympiakos triumphed in Athens on Feb. 25, United had won all four of the previous matches between the clubs.
They have also won all five matches they have played against Greek clubs at home while Olympiakos have lost all 11 of the matches they have played in England.
That sorry sequence began with a 4-0 loss at West Ham United in the old European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965 and has continued since with subsequent defeats at Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool (twice), Newcastle United, Chelsea, Manchester United (twice) and Arsenal (three times).
But they arrive at Old Trafford buoyed by a comprehensive title victory, even if Sunday’s 2-0 win over Panthrakikos was achieved behind closed doors.
While United have been in the unfamiliar position of looking up at the leading pack in the Premier League, the Piraeus club have been head and shoulders above their domestic rivals this season.
Spanish coach Michel is not getting carried away with their chances of reaching the last eight for the first time since 1999.
“We aim to do what we always do and that is concentrate on our own game,” he said.
“We know our opponents very well and we know that 2-0 is not a serious advantage. We need to score to make sure we make it difficult for them as we know that United have a strong desire to turn the tie around.”
Michel has to choose between former Argentina forward Javier Saviola, who missed the first leg due to injury and who would make his 100th appearance in European club competition, and Paraguayan Nelson Valdez for the lone attacking role in place of Nigerian striker Michael Olaitan.
Olaitan was kept in hospital for a week following his dramatic collapse during the Athens derby against Panathinaikos on March 2 due to viral myocarditis, but although he has no serious condition he is not yet ready for action.
Defensive midfielder Ivan Marcano is also expected to be fit after being rested over the weekend.
“Michael will be missed because against United he was amazing,” said Michel.
Among those United will be keeping a close eye on is 21-year-old Joel Campbell, the Costa Rican international who is on loan from Arsenal.
He scored an excellent goal to seal the 2-0 win in Athens and caused the creaky United defence problems with his pace and movement.
Moyes could shake up his team following Sunday’s defeat with Nani, Javier Hernandez and Jonny Evans all training again after injuries.
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