Noise. Music. Jumping. Celebrations. And that’s just in Liverpool. Back in Greece, the Olympiakos fans and players are enjoying themselves, for they have beaten Manchester United 2-0. But like that’s anything special – they’ve only emulated Swansea, Sunderland and Spurs. Olympiakos deserved to win. They didn’t create much but took their goals well and - cliche alert - they wanted it. They’re an average side at this level, sure, and it’s not a certainty that they can defend a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford in the second leg, but they’ve given themselves a great chance. And they won’t be scared of United - not this United. They are a sorry rabble at the moment. They defended poorly, could hardly string two passes together and barely mustered a noteworthy attack - and when they did, Robin van Persie fluffed his lines. There are more hard questions for David Moyes to answer - and there are also a lot of players in this side who should not be at United next season. Thanks for reading and emailing tonight. See you tomorrow - we’ll have live reports on Galatasaray v Chelsea and Schalke v Real Madrid.
Full-time: Olympiakos 2-0 Manchester United
But ... but they beat Crystal Palace on the weekend!
90 min+1: There will be three minutes of added time. Olympiakos are flagging. They’re tired now. For the second time since he’s come on, Kagawa impresses with a gliding run through the middle. On the touchline, Moyes is wondering WHY HE WON’T BLOODY CROSS IT, GET IT IN THE MIXAH, SHINJI. Instead he defies his manager with a cute pass through to Evra on the left of the area. He’s in a great position but his touch his awful and his deflected cross spoons up into the air for Roberto to claim.
90 min: Rio Ferdinand, who has had a terrible evening, is booked. His lax control gifted possession to Fuster and he compounded his error by cleaning him out.
89 min: Evra dinks a pass over the top to Welbeck, who scampers off in pursuit of the ball. He pokes the ball into the area and Van Persie arrives on the scene, but he can only swipe weakly at Roberto while under pressure.
88 min: United are running out of time if they want that away goal. Someone tell them!
85 min: Chris Smalling shanks a cross miles behind. Dearie me. In his defence, he’s not a right-back. Perez is replaced by Nelson Valdez - well, Michel did say he was alive and now we have proof.
84 min: I can’t believe Van Persie didn’t score. That is staggering.
82 min: Oh Robin! What a chance! Kagawa, showing something I believe is known as “invention”, slips a pass behind Holebas to Smalling, who instantly knocks the ball into the middle, where Van Persie is completely unmarked. He takes a touch, leaves one last defender on the floor and then smashes his shot over the bar from 12 yards! What a miss. That’s the first proper piece of football from United and look what nearly happened.
80 min: Young - yes - crosses it from the right. But this is a good low cross, intended for Van Persie, and Roberto has to be alert, dive down and push it away. No one is there to follow up on the loose ball, though.
79 min: “I have no idea what United’s attacking tactics are,” says Elliot Carr-Barnsley. “What do you think the answer would be if you asked one of these players “How were you told to beat Olympiakos tonight”? Moyes needs to try and win and not not lose games pretty fast.”
“Lads - go out there and play like Messi,” I’ll bet.
78 min: Perez wins a corner off Evra on the right. It’s just about hacked away. “Re: your 69th minute entry I think you’ve hit the nail bang on the head,” says Dan Place. “Watching reruns of old United teams you see why the crossing was so accurate and effective - the movement in the attacking third pulled defences out of shape. The defining characteristic of the Moyes era thus far is static-ness.” Yes - there was a plan. Beckham didn’t have loads of pace, even at his peak, but it didn’t matter because he tended to have escaped his marker anyway, such was the quality of the passing. It is harder to defend crosses when you’re facing your own goal.
76 min: Alejandro Dominguez, whose lovely flick gave Olympiakos the lead, is replaced by Paulo Machdo. Here, United should get Januzaj on.
74 min: Is this the performance of a side that is really playing for their manager? I’m not so sure. If this was Chelsea instead of United, Moyes would probably be gone by the end of the week.
72 min: United are offering nothing. Where’s Januzaj? “This is the game that will convince the few remaining doubters that Moyes is simply not good enough for a club like Manchester United,” says Rob Edwards. “This is the worst performance of any team in any competition and in any sport for the past 40 years.” I beg to differ - they once conceded twice to Jonathan Spector in a 4-0 defeat to West Ham. Those were dark days. Dark, dark days.
69 min: A lot has been made of United’s emphasis on crossing this season. It should be pointed out that their attack has always largely been based around wing play, the likes of Giggs and Beckham providing the ammo for the forwards. But there’s a crucial difference. Previous United sides would pass the ball snappily in midfield, rhythmically and hypnotically, always keeping the opposition on the move. They would pull them all over the place and then pounce. The cross would come at the right moment. This team? It’s just floaty, hopeful rubbish delivered from deep positions with opposition defences already organised and knowing what to expect.
67 min: This was almost a third for Olympiakos. Campbell, again causing bother on the right, stabbed a cross into the middle. It fell to Olaitan, who was surrounded by a few United defenders but was nonetheless able to smack a rising shot inches wide from 15 yards out. De Gea was rooted to the spot there. That’s the cue for David Fuster to replace Campbell.
66 min: “It’s times like this that clearly show what a good manager Fergie was,” says Matt Dony. “It’s the same players. He would have sent out this exact same team with the belief that they are one of the best sides in Europe. Moyes just doesn’t seem able to inspire anything like that level of confidence. It’s a shame for English football in the Champions’ League, but as a Liverpool fan (of the ‘4th place is the target’ variety) I’m relieved to see United probably on their way out.”
Look at what a very similar team did at Manchester City last season. United played with intensity, tempo and urgency, all qualities conspicuous by their absence tonight.
65 min: This is like watching England at their very post. Is there more damning criticism? Maniatis wallops a volley wide from 30 yards.
64 min: Young gets the ball on the right. Does he drive instead with mischievous intent, getting Holebas on the back foot and putting the fear into the Olympiakos defence? Or does he witlessly cross the ball as soon as he gets it, leading to Welbeck heading well wide? I’ll give you one guess.
62 min: “Were you at the Barnsley game that same season Jacob?” says Ian Sargeant. “90 minutes of sheer tedium - super Kev had quite possibly the worst 90 minutes from him I’ve seen - but got awarded the MOTM. 30000 people burst out laughing. It was like being at a michael macintyre gig only with laughing.” I skipped that one. But I was at the second leg of the City semi-final, so I can confirm that I am a masochist.
61 min: And Shinji Kagawa is on for poor Tom Cleverley. Rooney will drop back into midfield and Kagawa will play behind Van Persie. Young is right and Welbeck is left.
60 min: Danny Welbeck replaces Antonio Valencia, whose incompetence has been startling. “It’s finally twigged for me: United need to beware managers called David,” says Michael Meagher. “This is just like the Sexton years: numbing mediocrity with no speed and no wit.” So you’re saying they shouldn’t turn to David May next. Gotcha.
58 min: Shinji Kagawa - who “they” tell David Moyes is a very good player - will be on soon. The worrying thing - well, one of them - is that a lot of players don’t look bothered tonight. For both goals, United stood off and let Dominguez and Campbell shoot. Van Persie does not seem pleased with his lot. An away goal would, of course, change the complexion of the tie.
56 min: Did you know that Campbell is Costa Rican? Did you know that England play Costa Rica in the World Cup? Did you know that this has the potential to become seriously embarrassing for United? They are truly dire. This is as bad as anything we’ve seen from them this season.
GOAL! WHAT A GOAL! Olympiakos 2-0 Manchester United (Campbell, 55 min)
If the first Olympiakos goal owed much to improvisation from Dominguez, then this is sheer class from Joel Campbell - who, amazingly, is on loan from Arsenal, you’ll be stunned to learn. It also had plenty to do with United’s ineptitude, which resulted in them losing the ball in their own half for the umpteenth time tonight. Dominguez’s tackle broke to Campbell on the right. But he had a lot to do. No problem. He just poked the ball through Carrick’s legs with a delightful touch, sized up his options and then bent an outstanding left-footed curler past De Gea’s despairing dive and into the bottom-right corner from 25 yards. Brilliant.
53 min: Rooney is screaming invectives at the referee - not for the first time this evening - after not being given a free-kick. The harsh truth is that he’s been ponderous on the ball so far.
51 min: “As a United fan of over thirty years and many shredded nerves, I quite appreciate the new found freedom I’ve enjoyed through Moyes’ patented brand of TediumBall,” says Ben Vallance. “I’ve been able to go for a pee and also make a couple of mugs of tea while the match is in progress as I know I’ll miss nowt - fantastic. Cleverley, Valencia and Young, not only the answer to the question “Who are the three changes to the team?”, but also to the question “Who should be the first three out the door in May?” (After Moyes of course). I totally agree that Rafael could be a hell of a player, but Moyes is systematically isolating and discrediting him so that Moyes can justify going back to Everton for Coleman (politically motivated buy to insulate / protect himself with an ostensibly loyal Everton enclave). Seeing Klopp’s Dortmund win 4-2 at Zenit, all I can hear is Jim Bowen saying “Let’s have a look at what you could have won.” Klopp was the speedboat, Moyes the bus fare home.”
It can be quite liberating when your team is so exceptionally dull. It’s something I’ve discovered as a West Ham fan under Sam Allardyce. I’m not saying it’s like this all the time but there was a match against Brighton in 2011 when Kevin Nolan scored after 10 minutes, nothing else happened, I knew nothing else would happen, I turned my attention to some work and then the final whistle blew and West Ham had won 1-0.
50 min: United are a team playing without anything approaching self-belief. They look utterly miserable. It feels like every pass is asking for trouble, as if they are running through custard. There’s still enough in this team to get back in the game, though. “When ITV shows full body shots of Roy Keane, Lee Dixon and Adrian Chiles down on the touch line, they’re all wired up with microphones in such a way which makes them all look like they have tails,” says Steven Hughes. Perhaps you’ve uncovered an incredible conspiracy - they’re all robots.
48 min: This is appalling from United. Rooney wins a free-kick in his own half and immediately plays Cleverley into trouble by taking it too quickly, with the United midfielder not set or in a position to receive the ball. Olympiakos nick it but Perez’s shot from 25 yards is utterly forgettable.
46 min: We’re off again. This, you feel, is a very big half for David Moyes. Tom Cleverley begins it by conceding possession with a square pass across the United half. Luckily for him, Dominguez can’t control the loose ball. I think that Cleverley is a good player, as he proved when he first broke into the side in 2011, but he has been so poor for a long time now. “I think that Moyes would take this result now,” says Tom Sk. “An insipid performance and narrow defeat is ever the tonic for a dour pragmatist like Moyes. If United play the percentages down the flank at Old Trafford then a clear two goal then victory is all theirs.........................probably.” You’re probably right. The first half performance was that of a side who’d have been perfectly happy to escape with a 0-0 and get them back to Old Trafford.
Dominguez’s flick was so very nonchalant. The ball came at him quite sharply and he did very well to react so quickly and adroitly - it’s a very nice goal indeed.
BREAKING: Roy Keane’s seething.
“Unless Simon McMahon’s potential postage will be more than £5.75, I’d suggest he simply takes the hit,” says Matt Dony. “Surely it’s a false economy to buy something he doesn’t really want, when it would be cheaper not to? Our quest for ‘value’ can blind us to logic sometimes.”
“On the bright side of this awful game, I’m watching on Tv3 in Ireland and I’m looking forward to halftime, when Mark Lawrenson will no doubt begin his analysis how he begins every sentence , with “In my day players didn’t...” Before taking his thatch cottage head in his hands and sobbing gently for the next ten minutes,” says David Flynn.
“So when i thought about possible next-round-fixtures, i was suddenly imagining Klopp, Martino and all the other guys sitting in Nyon and thinking “Come on, let it be United, let it be United!”. It´s a bit sad, even as a german Hamburg-Fan..” says Pierre Muller.
“Rooney’s earned a thousand quid so far in this game,” says Bertie. “Has he been worth it? What else could you spend a thousand quid on and get such entertainment?”
“What was Moyes was expecting from that lineup?” says Joe McGrath. “Assuming he’s not a complete idiot, he must have known that they would play in a similar way to all the other times he’s chosen that kind of team. That implies that he honestly means it when he thinks we’ve played well, and just been unlucky.”
“As a Liverpool fan, I remember Mr Roy’s short interlude at Anfield, where in the space of a few very long months he took Liverpool back centuries,” says Paul Conyngham. “My sympathies therefore to the Man United fans, who only have 5 1/2 years left under Moyesie.”
Has anyone actually seen if Januzaj is injured? As far as I can tell, he’s just been left out - and what a decision that’s turning out to be.
Half-time: Olympiakos 1-0 Manchester United
For the first time in the round of 16, a home side leads at half-time. David Moyes, breaking more records.
45 min+1: So, United are in a sticky situation. They’ve done very little going forward and I can’t remember Roberto being extended. They’ve done a lot of crosses though. How about another one then? That should do it. Right? Right?! Wrong. Roberto catches. This has been dismal from United, to be honest.
44 min: The first hot, saucy Campbell-on-Young action ends with Young dumping the Costa Rican to the floor and conceding a free-kick. “5.75 is the current cost of a breath of CO2 expelled from the rapidly aging gob of “young” Wayne,” says Ian Copestake.
43 min: With Van Persie still off the pitch, United get on with the game. Rooney takes the corner short and swiftly receives the ball again. He diddles into the area, twists inside to make space for the shot but his low effort is easily blocked. Olympiakos clear and Van Persie is allowed back on.
42 min: Van Persie was out cold for a moment or two, but he’s up again, rubbing his bonce and looking groggy. United are down to 10 men momentarily. It was an accidental collision with Roberto, but a nasty one.
40 min: A free-kick to United on the left, Evra fouled. Rooney swings it in with venom and swerve. Roberto, the Olympiakos goalkeeper, comes flying out, getting nowhere near the ball and clattering Van Persie’s head with in the process. Luckily for Roberto the ball is headed just over by one of his own defenders for a corner.
GOAL! Olympiakos 1-0 Manchester United (Dominguez, 38 min)
What a brilliant piece of opportunism from Dominguez! It must be said that United are unfortunate to fall behind to this goal, not that they’ve played well, because it did require a stroke of luck. After a risible United attack broke down, Olympiakos broke down the right. A cross from the right was easily headed away but only as far as Maniatis, around 25 yards out. He decided to shoot with his left. Nothing special - it was probably going to dribble wide of the left post. But there was Dominguez with his back to goal. Sensing his moment, he stuck out a foot and with a flick, he diverted it towards the opposite corner, totally wrongfooting De Gea, who couldn’t react in time! Uh oh.
36 min: “Chris Smalling gives the impression that he’s making a nervy, error-strewn debut every single time he plays,” says Neil Waters. “Either that, or he’s absolute garbage. And will always be.” He’s a centre-back and potentially a very good one. United need a reserve right-back. Or one who’s less susceptible to injuries than Rafael, who could turn out to be a top, top player if he ever manages to calm down.
35 min: Rooney slices a pass straight out of play. Hmmm.
33 min: What happens when Joel Campbell and Ashley Young come into close contact? Will they try to outdive each other? Will it lead to a split in the time-space continuum? “Jacob, can you or anyone suggest something to buy for £5.75 from a popular web-based retailer?” says Simon McMahon. “I need to find something worth this amount to reach the minimum spend for free delivery. And just so you know, Ashley Young is out of stock at the moment. Thanks.”
32 min: Perez hoofs a hopeful high ball into the United area. Dominguez backs into Vidic and then falls over. The free-kick goes United’s way. I’m not entirely sure there was a foul either way. “When US sportsters earn huge salaries for being injected/hitting a ball, do they get the same distainful MBM treatment?” says Ian Copestake. “Don’t get me wrong though as I’m all for it.”
30 min: You could say this is the perfect, professional performance away from home in Europe from United, by which I mean to say that my eyes are starting to hurt.
29 min: Campbell tries to Wanchope his way through the heart of the United defence but he’s halted by Cleverley. Not much is happening. “United appear to consist of a team of three tonight: de Gea,Rooney (spit), and RVP, with the other eight having turned up from the local bar looking for a game,” says Mark Judd. “I’m not convinced by the manager and his coaching staff either. I wonder if my Cub Scout badges from over 40 years ago qualify me to coach the team.”
26 min: Olympiakos attack for the first time in a while. Perez stands up Smalling on the left, drops a shoulder and then dashes inside before drilling a low right-footer past the near post from the edge of the area. De Gea had it covered. “Chap on American TV said in the pregame show It’s not just that he’s 28, but that he’s a very old 28’,” says Marie Meyer. Poor old words.
25 min: “This is what Joel Campbell’s fellow countryman Paulo Wanchope did against a much more competent Man U side the first time he encountered them!” says Daniel Bullon.
23 min: No. “You know those times when Rooney gets annoyed because he’s not earning his money and drops really really deep to pick the ball up of Ferdinand?” says David Flynn. “Do you reckon that while that’s happening, it ever crosses the minds of Carrick or Cleverley that maybe that’s part of their job spec and not you know, the centre forwards?”
22 min: Young and Evra combine neatly on the left. From a position similar to where he won the penalty against Palace, Evra breaks into the area and although his touch is heavy, he manages to win a corner on the left. Can United do anything of any note with it?
21 min: Maniatis tries to guide one in from 30 yards out - but his shot is utterly bereft of any pace whatsoever and De Gea isn’t bothered by it.
20 min: Having spent most of the first 20 minutes giving the ball away, Valencia finally does something productive, beating Holebas on the outside with ease ... and then blasting his cross out for a goal-kick.
19 min: The Dominguez run aside, Olympiakos haven’t posed an obvious threat in attack. They look short there. United would only have themselves to blame.
17 min: From the resulting corner, a spot of head tennis in the Olympiakos area ends with Cleverley shanking a volley over from the right. It wasn’t an easy chance, the ball sitting up awkwardly as he struck it.
16 min: For the first time, United hint at something positive, Young cutting inside and drilling a clever reverse pass through to Van Persie, who has peeled away from his man. But the pass is too heavy. Soon Van Persie is threatening again, skipping away from Manolas 40 yards out and driving into the area. He has to settle for a corner in the end.
14 min: Ferdinand tries to Beckenbauer his way out from the back again, only to be stymied by an impressive lack of movement by his team-mates. Eventually he’s swamped by two Olympiakos players but wins a throw-in which should have gone the way of the home side. Ferdinand turns round and asks Smalling and Valencia what the eff they think they’re up to.
13 min: “Is the bank of nine that United have retreated into the ones used to finance Rooney’s first half?” says Ian Copestake. When he’s 33! £300,000 a week when he’s 33!
12 min: United are conceding possession very cheaply. Valencia has been particularly culpable; the quality of their passing and first touch has been decidedly low.
10 min: United attack for the first time. Evra is found in space on the left. He crosses.
8 min: Brilliant defending from Vidic denies Olympiakos - but United are all over the place! They’re all over the place! On the right, Smalling collapses in a heap under minimal pressure, Perez bothering him into losing the ball. The ball runs to Dominguz and he sniffs blood. He charges through the middle, United’s midfield utterly non-existent. Er, Tom? Michael? Hello? Anyone there? Soon Dominguez is running clean through, with Vidic and Ferdinand miles apart, a huge gap appearing in the middle of the United defence. He could slide it to Olaitan to his right but shoots instead - not unselfishly, he had a clear sight of goal - and Vidic slides across to block. He’s leaving in the summer. Ah.
6 min: United decide to faff around with the ball at the back, stroking it around their defence. A foolish move. Just get rid. Eventually Ferdinand concedes possession with a slack pass to Smalling and Perez pounces, haring off down the left. His pass inside is poor but Ferdinand again can’t control the ball, putting United in a spot of bother again. However Olaitan’s shot from the edge of the area is easily blocked and United clear, though that was all extremely messy from their point of view. In the dug-out, Moyes glares. Which might not be news.
5 min: United have obligingly retreated into one bank of nine (OBON), with Van Persie all alone front.
3 min: The crowd howls after Salino flicks the ball against Evra’s outstretched arm on the right touchline. The referee obliges, blowing for handball and booking Evra, who has a very long time to avoid another booking. Get Buttner on now. The resulting free-kick is commandingly headed away in cyborg style by Vidic.
2 min: The ball has not spent much time on the floor. Promising. It’s been a scrappy start, with each United touch whistled by the home fans. And maybe the away fans.
And we’re off! Olympiakos, in their red and white stripes, kick off and they’re attacking from right to left in the first half. United are in navy. It’s noisy. “So we have the brothers grim taking up the wide positions with Tom ‘The Crab’ Cleverley and Michael ‘The Silver Ghost’ Carrick (sure he looks classy out there but shouldn’t footballers be going faster than that these days?!?) taking up the central positions,” sighs Tom Sk. “What could possibly go wrong?”
Here come the teams, walking out into an ear-splitting din. The stadium’s still noisy even though part of it has been closed after a Nazi banner was displayed during Olympiakos’s group match against Anderlecht. Top banter, top lads. With the chants in Greek this evening, I can neither confirm nor deny that they’re all about a global Jewish conspiracy. What I can tell you is that some fans booed when an anti-racism message was read out over the tannoy. Top lads, top banter - some of the world’s keenest minds are out in force tonight.
Hang on. Ever the professional, I only skimmed the United bench at first and assumed Januzaj was there. Ever the professional, it turns out I was wrong - unless he’s injured, that’s very odd.
“I dare say that Joel Campbell is best known for one of the worst/most hilarious dives in history,” says Yuval Weber.
Morten Gamst Pedersen would be proud.
“No matter how freakish it may seem of Moyes to have Young and Valencia over Januzaj and Kagawa, I still think even Sir Alex would have done the same thing, considering defending is the first preference on a away tie and not expansive and open football,” says Venkat HC. “As for Fellaini, it wasn’t much of a choice considering he is just back from injury and played almost the full game on the weekend. As a United fan, I’m more concerned about Rio and Vidic at the back. Second game in three days. Do they have the legs? I think not.”
At least they weren’t overly extended at Palace, although there was one moment when Vidic let a simple pass roll under his foot, before bringing down Glenn Murray and getting himself booked. Moyes thought Ferdinand played “well” on Saturday, which is nice, good to see they’re getting along famously.
“Liverpool supporter here,” says Marie Meyer. “You aren’t not disturbing my equanimity in the least. I have complete confidence in David Moyes.”
Liverpool played Olympiakos when they won the Champions League in 2005 - it’s a sign.
“That MoyesOut United team shows exactly why they are in the state they are in,” says Mark Judd. “I despair. What has Shinji done that he can’t even get in above that rabble. Still, at least it might hasten Moyes’ departure. Not thatI’m being negative or anything.”
Is Shinji Kagawa a myth? Does he exist? Is it possible to eat yourself into hospital?
Also in the Olympiakos team: Joel Campbell, on loan at the Greek club from Arsenal. He is Costa Rican. He is 21. He is playing on the right wing. He was on loan at Real Betis last season. I am reading Wikipedia. Can you tell?
Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. What a treat.
On the PA wire, Olympiakos is being spelt/speld/spelled/spelletare “Olympiacos” - get them. But they’ve given me the line-ups, so all’s well in the world. Get us. Olympiacos/kos are in a hipster-friendly 4-2-3-1 and their striker, Olaitan, is wearing the No99 shirt. He’s their only available senior forward. When the coach, Michel, was asked about Nelson Valdes’s fitness, he replied: “He’s alive and that’s all I am telling you.” Eh? What’s he done with him? As for United, they make three changes from the win over Palace. Juan Mata is too cup-tied, Adnan Januzaj is too skillful and Marouane Fellaini is too Marouane Fellaini to feature, so in come Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. Dream big, oh Chosen One.
Olympiakos: Roberto; Leandro Salino, Manolas, Marcano, Holebas; Maniatis, Ndinga; Campbell, Dominguez, Perez; Olaitan. Subs: Megyeri, Paulo Machado, Samaris, Haedo Valdez, David Fuster, Papadopoulos, Bong Songo.
Man Utd: De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS A WEEK, Young; Van Persie. Subs: Lindegaard, Giggs, Hernandez, Welbeck, Kagawa, Buttner, Fellaini.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
Liverpool fans, I come in peace. I mean you no harm. But just consider the following scenario: it’s the end of the Premier League season, it’s May, the sun is out, everyone’s smiling and Liverpool, with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge leading the way, have finished fourth. After a five-year absence, they’re back in the Champions League. Liverpool are back. The glory days are back, baby! Hooray! Hooray for Brendan Rodgers! Hooray for Liverpool! Hooray for life! Hooray! Hooray, hooray, hooray! But wait. Wait. Hold your horses there. Hang on just a minute - there’s still some top-level football to be played, namely the Champions League final. And, yes, Manchester United, embracing the 70s/80s vibe, might have dulled their way to a hilarious 13th place, finishing 27 points behind Liverpool.
But they’re not done yet. Somehow they’ve bungled their way into the final, where they face Real Madrid. They’ve already seen off Olympiakos, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and now Moyes Boyz are one step from greatness. They’re 3-0 down at half-time to a Gareth Bale hat-trick. All hope is lost - until the 60th minute, by which time they’re level thanks to a Marouane Fellaini hat-trick. Madrid pound them, hitting the woodwork several times and missing seven penalties. Then Cristiano Ronaldo scores a last-minute own goal and United are European champions! They’re still in the Champions League! Hooray! Hooray for Manchester United! Hooray for inspirational manager David Moyes! Written off by all and sundry but he got there in the end. Meanwhile Liverpool are sent schadenfreudianslipping into the Europa League. Suarez leaves. Rodgers resigns in disgrace and Roy Hodgson returns as manager, instantly replacing Suarez with Andy Johnson.
Ridiculously far-fetched, you say? Probably. But as far-fetched as Djimi Traore owning a Champions League medal? Or Jose Bosingwa owning one? Exactly. United might be a mess under Moyes but the nature of cup competitions means that it is not always the best team that ends up drinking champagne out of the trophy - unlike in the league, where the best side tends to win. While it’s impossible to fluke your way to winning the Champions League, the margins are so fine over the course of two legs that luck is a factor and sides will find themselves hostages to fortune. Liverpool’s win in 2005 was a triumph of never-say-die spirit and Rafael Benitez’s organisational skills but it was also a perfect storm.
Events elsewhere meant they did not have to play Europe’s best side, Barcelona, for instance and they were one Eidur Gudjohnsen miss away in the 142nd minute of the semi-final against Chelsea from going out. Bayern should have been out of sight by the time United won it in 1999. And as marvellously as Chelsea fought to win it in 2012, there surely would have been no way back against Barcelona if Lionel Messi had put his penalty away – or if Arjen Robben had scored his in the final. Events, dear readers, events. They matter. All the tactics, the sleepless nights, the best-laid plans - mostly, they will be foolproof and talent - or a lack of it - will be decisive in the end. But in European football, they can all be undone by one crazy, history-altering moment - just ask Arsene Wenger or Manuel Pellegrini. They’ll tell you.
At the moment, of course, no logical argument could be made that United are contenders to win the Champions League for a fourth time - or even to reach the semis. Who could really say that with a straight face? But the thought must have crossed Moyes’s mind. Though his side currently looks like it has forgotten how to attack, as if they don’t believe in what they are being asked to do, they remain dangerous with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front. They have knowhow. They have experience. They have winners in that squad. They are still Manchester United, although that argument admittedly falls down when you remember that they aren’t a very good side and that Moyes seems unwilling or unable to remove the handbrake, even when he has his best attackers available. Expect a lot of crossing tonight.
And yet, while they have been execrable in the league, they haven’t been bad in Europe. Their best performance of the season came in the 5-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen –although that result was knocked into perspective by PSG winning 4-0 there last week – and they can be confident about beating Olympiakos, who sold their key striker, Kostas Mitroglou, to Fulham last month. Javier Saviola is suspended, Marco Scepovic is cup-tied and no one knows what Nelson Valdes is up to. Although Olympiakos emerged from a tough group, are miles clear at the top of the Greek league and should remember to play the team on the pitch, not the name on the badge, it probably wouldn’t be overly premature for United to book the open-top bus now. Olympiakos have never won a knock-out tie in this competition.
Alternatively Olympiakos might remember that this lot were knocked out of the domestic cup competitions by Sunderland and Swansea and that it’s David Moyes in the opposition’s dug-out, not Sir Alex Ferguson.