| Wayne Rooney during a practice session, on Monday |
Athens: With hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League fading, Manchester United approach Tuesday’s Champions League last 16 first-leg match at Greek champions Olympiakos, here, desperate for a positive result.
Not only does the competition represent United’s last realistic hope of silverware this season, but also David Moyes’ side may need to win the Champions League just to qualify for next season’s tournament.
United are unbeaten against Greek teams and Olympiakos have not reached the Champions League quarter finals since 1999, although they have won at home to Arsenal twice in the last two seasons.
The match will be played at a partially closed Karaiskakis Stadium as a Uefa punishment because of racist behaviour by their fans.
In another match of the day, Borussia Dortmund fans will be offered tea and pies at Zenit St Petersburg but there will be no such generosity on the pitch with the Russians intent on reaching their first Champions League quarter final. This match also will be played at a partially closed Petrovsky stadium for the same reason.
United might be struggling in the Premier League but they are cruising along quite nicely in Europe, and thanks to finishing in first place in Group A, they’ve been handed a relatively straightforward draw in Olympiakos. But that’s not to say that the matches will be a formality for United.
Olympiakos made it out of the groups after a vicious dogfight against Benfica, and they’ll be no pushovers. Moreover, the Greek side may never have a better chance to overcome their United hoodoo than in Tuesday’s tie.
Yet a rejuvenated United served the runaway Greek league leaders a warning of improving form in their 2-0 win at Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday. United travel to Greece with the Champions League their only chance of winning a trophy this season, although that chance is a long shot at best.
United have won only four of their 11 matches since the turn of the year. However, the three-time continental champions qualified comfortably as Group A winners, winning four and drawing two of their six matches and enjoying handsome 4-2 and 5-0 victories over last year’s runners-up Bayer Leverkusen.
On the plus side, Wayne Rooney pledged his long-term future to United last week before scoring a superb goal in Saturday’s victory. Also, manager David Moyes was able to include Marouane Fellaini in the starting line-up against Palace after his long injury absence.
Nevertheless, with Arsenal and Manchester City having already lost their own last 16 first-leg matches, to Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively, the tournament final in Lisbon on May 24 remains a long way off.
Record signing Juan Mata is cup-tied in the Champions League, and Moyes have some defending problems on hand as Phil Jones and Jonny Evans have been ruled out of this match because of injuries. However, he can have the services of Rafael da Silva.
The Greek giants can nonetheless take heart from their breathtaking domestic form, having won 24 and drawn two of their opening 26 league games and reached the semi-finals in the Greek Cup.
In St Petersburg, Zenit would appear to be rank outsiders against the last season’s runners-up after scraping through the group stage with measly six points, the lowest-ever total with which a team has reached the round of 16.
They will also be rusty after a two-month winter break.