Manchester United's best chance to get to the Champions League next year is probably by winning Europe's elite tournament this year. United currently trail Liverpool by 11 points with 11 games remaining for the fourth-place spot in the Premier League, a deficit that seems nearly impossible to overcome.
Of course, it isn't inconceivable that a team having struggles in their domestic campaign could yet win the Champions League, especially a team as talented as Manchester United. Remember, it was just two years ago that Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League but won Europe's premier tournament.
The Red Devils will be heavily favored against Olympiakos, Greece's premier squad. But with the opening leg in Athens, could the Greek underdogs surprise anyone by getting off to a strong start in this round of 16 showdown?
When: Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. ET
Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. GMT
Where: Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Athens, Greece
Watch: Fox Sports 1; Fox Soccer 2Go
United will be without one of their best players in this contest, as Juan Mata is cup-tied after participating in the group stage with Chelsea. But that didn't stop him from providing a brief scouting report on the matchup on his personal blog (translated):
At Karaiskakis, the team will face a tough opponent: Olympiakos are both the leaders and the reigning champions in Greece. Mitroglou—their goal scorer—and Weiss left the club in January, but they have signed two good players, Valdez and Hernan Perez. Olympiakos have a Spanish flavour with several players that have been in La Liga before: Roberto, Saviola, Chori, David Fuster or Joel Campbell. And the same can be said about the staff: the manager is Michel, whom I met in Real Madrid Castilla. I’ll bite my nails nervously watching the game on telly. I will feel the same as you.
But hey, when you have Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney—fresh off of signing a huge contract extension—you can survive the absence of a player as talented as Mata. United come into this game fresh off of a draw to Arsenal and a victory over Crystal Palace, perhaps reversing the form that saw them draw against Fulham and lose to Stoke City earlier in the month.
On the other hand, perhaps a victory against a meager Palace side only covered for United's weaknesses, as Jacob Steinburg of The Guardian wrote:
Yet there were long spells when United had no idea what to do with all that possession. Rooney and Mata wanted to operate in the same areas, a conundrum that Moyes will have to solve, and United ended up flinging countless hopeful crosses into the penalty area for Palace's giants to gobble up. The number of times that high, diagonal balls were delivered to the far post for Marouane Fellaini to nod down felt like a betrayal of United's attacking ethos.
Have they forgotten how they are meant to attack—with pace, fantasy, imagination and skill? Or are they simply not responding to [David] Moyes? Hidden away in Moyes's praise for the 'exquisite' Mata, there was a revealing line about the Spaniard's responsibilities out of possession.
"One step forward, two steps back" could feasibly be the motto for Manchester United this season under Moyes. The fear for United fans will be that the team, after getting off the schneid, will simply revert to the inconsistent form they've regularly displayed in other vital games this season.
The key for Olympiakos will be how attackers Javier Saviola and Michael Olaitan get after a suspect United defense. In years past Olympiakos may have sunk into a shell and hoped to poach goals off the counter—and they very well may take that approach in this contest, too—but at home and given United's shaky form, the Greek side may feel a bit more confident looking to take the game to United.
United have lost a bit of their imposing feel this season. It will be interesting to see if Olympiakos look to exploit that fact.
It would go a long way for United's confidence if they could go into Greece and emerge victorious in this game, both for their domestic campaign and in the Champions League. Frankly, the team may be better off without Mata, as he and Rooney are still trying to reconcile the fact that they enjoy playing similar roles on the pitch.
Olympiakos is no pushover, but this was still a pretty favorable draw for the Red Devils in the round of 16. Look for them to open with another much-needed win, 2-1.