[UCL PREVIEW: Olympiakos vs. Manchester United]Is the dominant team in Greece the right tonic for Manchester United's troubles or will Olympiakos increase the sting of a disappointing season?
The first leg of their Champions League series Tuesday (live on Fox Sports 1 at 2:45 p.m. ET) in Piraeus offers Olympiakos its first success in the knockout phase. It has previously stumbled against Juventus, Bordeaux, and Chelsea, and this time around meets a version of United down to sixth place in the Premier League and 15 points from the crown it won last year.
“We don't have a laser-sighted weapon to blow away their defense, but we do have our ideas,” Olympiakos head coach Michel Gonzalez told the Guardian. “We wanted to enjoy Europe and we're doing that but who says we have to stop now? To be able to compete with United is wonderful.”
Since 1997, Olympiakos has failed to win the Greek league only twice, in 2004 and 2010. It edged into the Champions League second round on goal difference, tied for second place with Benfica in Group C behind winner Paris St. Germain. It could not manage a point against PSG; it swept Anderlecht and against Benfica tied,1-1, in Lisbon and won, 1-0, at home.
During the January transfer window, Olympiakos off-loaded perhaps its most potent weapon: striker Kostas Mitroglou, who had led the team in group play by scoring three goals in five games. The top scorer in the Greek league the past two seasons departed for Fulham in a transfer valued at 11 million pounds ($18.3 million). Paraguayan forwardNelson Valdez, who has Champions League experience with Werder Bremen and Valencia, was signed on a six-month contract to offset somewhat the loss of Mitroglou.
“Olympiakos has scored a lot of goals and they’ve very strong defensively, but the fact that they sold Mitroglu has to have an effect on this next round for them even though Manchester United is still trying to find their way,” says former U.S. international and Fox Soccer analyst Brian McBride. “Maybe with this little break they were able to get away and that always helps.”
The fact one of the Greek league’s top players went to a Premier League relegation candidate would indicate a stark contrast in quality, but this is not the United of Sir Alex Ferguson’s incredibly long and successful reign. Veteran defender Nemanja Vidic has stated he will leave at the end of the season, and rumors of dissention and displeasure with managerDavid Moyesare rampant.
If United is not in top form, it is at least relatively healthy. The only absences for the Olympiakos game are Jonny Evans(calf) and Phil Jones (concussion).
Yet despite its domestic troubles United topped Group A by going unbeaten against Bayer Leverkusen, Shaktar Donetsk, and Real Sociedad, and marked a new contract for tempestuous striker Wayne Rooney by winning, 2-0, at Crystal Palace in league play last weekend. United stumbled at this stage last year but the opponent in that series, Real Madrid, carried much more weight than Olympiakos though it was the lower-seeded team.
The forward duo of Rooney and Robin Van Persie scored against Crystal Place and their sharpness could mitigate a few United problems in other areas as Moyes tries to restore momentum.
“Rooney and Van Persie are in really good shape and they're both scoring goals in the big games,” Moyes said. “We are a far better team when they are with us. Olympiakos have done well this season, particularly against Paris St. Germain and Benfica. They came through a difficult group so we know it's going to be tough.”
Olympiakos is storming through the Greek league. It has won 24 of its 26 league matches this season and tied the other two. It is averaging three goals a game and has conceded just nine. It pummeled OFI Crete last weekend, 4-0, to run its unbeaten streak in all competitions to 19 games. Marko Scepovic scored a hat trick against OFI as a replacement for Javier Saviola, whose thigh injury in the league match will prevent him from facing United in the first leg. Giannis Maniatis, Ivan Marcano, Delvin N'Dinga, Alejandro Dominguezand Michael Olaitan all sat out last weekend.
Though he’s not known to be superstitious, Moyes may want to give Ryan Giggs a run. United has won each of the four previous meeting with Olympiakos, though the teams haven’t faced each other in more than a decade. Giggs has played in each of those four games, and scored three goals.