Old Trafford was united in relief last Wednesday night. Supporters, players and management all shared a moment of exuberance that they had been waiting a long time for. Their smiles at the final whistle couldn’t hide the feeling that this was one they had got away with it—just.
No matter who the opponents are, though—overcoming a two-goal deficit to progress to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League is no mean feat. A good performance was demanded of the side that offered so little against Liverpool last weekend, and United delivered.
The problem wasn’t so much that Manchester United were outplayed by Liverpool—that is not disputed—but the manner in which at least two of the three penalties were gifted to the Merseysiders displayed an ineptitude that ought not to be repeated. A recurring theme at Old Trafford is of a United side unable to dominate the opposition.
And so, with one last tournament in which to try to salvage something from the wreckage of a disastrous season, David Moyes had to release the shackles on not only his team, but also his own cautiousness.
Like a drunken casino-goer, United knew that they had one last chance before they stumbled out into the breaking dawn. Olympiakos had shown their hand already. At 2-0 down from the first match, United had to gamble.
Olympiakos must have entered Old Trafford sensing a famous victory. They played with a carefree abandon that was naive, in hindsight. It helped give the home side a sense of freedom they have seldom enjoyed this season.
However, it is when attempting to evoke memories of United’s past swashbuckling European escapades that the Red Devils’ lack of control over midfield is severely exposed. Olympiakos had numerous chances, and late in the game, United were clearly retreating and attempting to hold on to the result. The tendency to hoof long balls upfield then regroup and defend another attack made for an uncomfortable last 10 minutes.
One of the most difficult tasks that has faced Moyes is that of working out which players he can rely on. He has had to learn on the job; therefore, he has rarely played a settled side in his quest to get to know the players. It seems that every time he inches closer to answers, further questions are posed.
The Olympiakos match was played amidst the backdrop of some onlookers daring to ask whether Robin van Persie was still worthy of his starting place alongside Wayne Rooney. The Dutchman's emphatic answer to the critics was to rattle in a hat-trick.
However, in a feature typical of the luck enjoyed in the Moyes era so far, van Persie later left the pitch on a stretcher. He is likely to miss the rest of the season, per The Guardian.
The temptation to always play Rooney and van Persie together is a difficult one to resist. The pair are two of the world’s best strikers—yet questions as to their effectiveness as a partnership still persist.
Due to the Dutchman’s injury, Rooney took centre-stage against West Ham United on Saturday evening. Installed as captain for the day, he played further forward and was ably assisted by a more centrally positioned Juan Mata, who bridged midfield and attack.
The match may long be remembered for Rooney’s stunning long-range goal, but the added control over the game that United displayed with an extra man in midfield will only have given Moyes even more food for thought. To get the best out of Mata, he has to play centrally. Wayne Rooney’s recent high-profile contract extension suggests that he will be around for a few more years. What then of van Persie’s future?
Title-chasing Manchester City arrive at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening. Whoever controls the midfield will win the derby, and City have been too strong, too often in that area against United recently. With league ambitions long put to one side, the derby ought to be a good dress rehearsal for the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich.
However, Mata is not eligible to play in the Champions League. When it comes to picking the side that will face the European Champions, any answers found on Tuesday night might just pose even more questions for Moyes.
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