Greek Tragedy! Champions League Diary 26.02.14
Another Champions League evening has passed and we are still waiting for a English club to avoid defeat in the first knockout round, admittedly Arsenal and Manchester City faced significantly more difficult opposition in Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively but Manchester United were certainly set for a tough evening ahead of kick off in Piraeus last night.
Following the positivity taken from the result at Selhurst Park over the weekend it was expected that Manchester United would kick on in Athens on Tuesday even without Juan Mata eligible for selection in the competition courtesy of his pre-Christmas involvement with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Manchester United hoped to continue their record of having never lost to a Greek team in European competition but David Moyes’ men were yet again unable to get out of second gear and were second best for almost the entirety of the evening.
Olympiacos were up for the fight, despite having the lower section of the North Stand closed as part of UEFA disciplinary action due to racial conduct by supporters and the use of lasers. Despite this the atmosphere at the Karaiskakis stadium was electric, it was very much a classic European evening for the hosts and Manchester United looked rattled from the off.
The visitors struggled in the early goings to at the very least keep their footing, particularly on the right hand side where the hosts had watered the pitch for a solid seven minutes just prior to kick off, this then transcended to the passing of the football around the back four with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic putting each other into all sorts of trouble with ill thought out and poorly executed passes across the defensive line. Olympiacos, despite not boasting the attacking talent they had in the group stage with Konstantinos Mitroglou and Vladimir Weiss both leaving the club in January, were still a threat to United with Arsenal’s Joel Campbell and former Valencia midfielder Alejandro Dominguez both putting United under pressure during the first half.
After a shaky start United seemed to ease into the tie with ball retention improving even if there was very little done with the ball once into the final third, it just seems a case of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley not being able to function to their best when playing together. You have to feel that Cleverley needs a talisman next to him, someone who can tell him where to be, take the pressure away from Cleverley when he is on the ball. We saw a performance of that nature by Marouane Fellaini at Selhurst Park at the weekend but the Belgian was left on the bench in Piraeus.
As has so often been the case for Manchester United this season the visitors were punished by a bit of bad luck when Olympiacos took the lead just before half time. Giannis Maniatis received the ball just on the edge of United’s penalty area and not a single player was quick enough to close the shot down, Maniatis had essentially a free shot at goal, it was a minor miracle in itself that the Greek international’s shot was such a poor one however with the ball looking to be going wide the always alive Dominguez flicked his heel at the ball and directed it past the outstretched De Gea. United had gone from being in an okay position in the tie whilst not playing well to being under immense pressure to now go out and seek an away goal.
If there first half was poor then United’s second half performance at least until the last ten minutes was dire. Ball retention was nonexistent and chance creation was not a feature of the English Champions’ second half performance. Ashley Young looked to get forward when he could with Evra ably supporting him on the left hand side but it was futile, the players looked tired and by this point Olympiacos had their tails well and truly in the air.
The evening got even worse for United later in the second half when again a lack of desire to close down a shot was punished. Michael Carrick was too late to make up the ground on Joel Campbell and when he eventually did the tackle was weak. Arsenal’s Costa Rican forward curled in a fantastic shot past De Gea to give the Greek side a deserved two goal lead. Try as they might in the last ten minutes following the introduction of Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa, United could not break the hosts down although the best chance of the evening fell to Robin van Persie inside the penalty area only for the Dutchman to fire over the power. Had that shot gone in United’s continental prospects would have been looking far rosier with an away goal under their belt.
Take nothing away from Olympiacos, they were excellent. The energy they showed off the ball was impressive with the players feeding off the atmospheric crowd although some of their tackling was clumsy and on another night with another referee could have resulted in a foul. Manchester United have it all to do at Old Trafford in three weeks’ time with no away goal to take away from the Greek capital however the tie is by no means over. David Moyes will be confident his side can improve their level of performance and put a shaky Olympiacos defence to the sword on home soil, however United will have to really step up their game to continue this year’s continental adventure.
In another of the first knockout round ties which look all but over Borussia Dortmund ran out 4-2 winners away in Russia to Zenit St Petersburg in yesterday’s early fixture. In what was a nice break from the difficulties of domestic action, Jurgen Klopp’s team seem to take the shackles off and really play the way we all know they can yesterday. Maybe it is an early sign that the club are heavily going for European glory rather than trying to close the gap between themselves and the almost invincible Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race?
Zenit’s evening started horribly with Dortmund going two goals to the good inside five minutes with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marco Reus both netting for the visitors. Zenit did pull a goal back through Oleg Shatov but that was cancelled out by the first of two Robert Lewandowski strikes just minutes later. Hulk’s penalty made the game 3-2 but Robert Lewandowski’s second strike left the scoreline at 4-2.
You wouldn’t expect Dortmund to face any real trouble from Zenit in the second leg however with the significant injuries the German giants have, squad management may become an issue ahead of the second leg however Mats Hummels is expected to return for the second leg which can only boost Dortmund’s defensive resolve.
Jurgen Klopp was left pleased with his team’s response to the weekend’s 3-0 drubbing at the hands of prime relegation candidates Hamburger SV and despite claiming the tie was “not easy” the German coach was pleased with his teams response to recent adversity, “It was clear to me that my team would produce a reaction, we were close to optimal this evening.”
Wednesday completes the first leg action of the Champions League first knockout stage with two of the outside favourites for the competition in action. Chelsea visit Istanbul to face Galatasaray with an emotional rendezvous with Didier Drogba likely to be the main talking point prior to kick off, whilst Real Madrid head to Germany to go up against Jens Keller’s Schalke team with the German coach suggesting his side will “need a miracle” if they are to overcome the might of Madrid.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4