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 desperate for a positive result.
Not only does the competition represent United’s last realistic hope of silverware this season, but David Moyes’s side may need to win the Champions League just to qualify for next season’s tournament.
United are currently 11 points below Liverpool, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League place, and with only 11 games of the season remaining, qualification via the league may already be beyond them.
United have won only four of their 11 matches since the turn of the year, but the Champions League provided a respite from their domestic woes during the European autumn.
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.
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.
“Only one team can win it, and it’s very hard,” United striker Robin van Persie told Champions magazine.
“It’s a trophy many players don’t win; once, if you’re very lucky. You have a couple of players who’ve won it more than once, but it’s a very special trophy everyone wants to win every year.
Passion and enthusiasm
United warmed up for Tuesday’s game at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus by winning 2-0 at Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, with Van Persie opening the scoring from the penalty spot.
Wayne Rooney doubled United’s lead to mark his 300th league appearance for the club with a goal and celebrate his new five-and-a-half-year contract.
It was a rare straightforward afternoon for United manager Moyes, who was able to start a game with Rooney, Van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and record signing Juan Mata in his team for the first time.
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.
Saturday’s 4-0 win at OFI Crete came at a cost, however, with experienced Argentine striker Javier Saviola forced off with a left thigh injury that has ruled him out of the game against United.
Olympiakos coach Michel, the former Real Madrid midfielder, believes that his side’s performance against OFI proves that they are ready for the challenge of tackling United.
“I’d love to see my team have the same concentration, the same passion and enthusiasm that we had (against OFI) in the match against Manchester United,” he said. “We treat every match with the same seriousness and I believe we will also have a good performance on Tuesday in the Champions League.”