What we learned from Manchester United’s Champions League disappointment at Olympiakos

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With apologies to Olympiakos, today’s takeaways are all about Manchester United. Though the Greek champions deserve kudos for one of the biggest victories in club history, the favorites’ inability to become the sixth Champions League group winner (in six games) to claim victory is Tuesday’s big story. While some where picking Míchel’s team to spring an upset in Piraeus, nobody thought it would be this easy, with United held to one shot on target in Olympiakos’s 2-0 win.

Within the context of an unexpectedly disappointing 2013-14, Manchester United’s takeaways all fit a bigger narrative. With an attack that lacked both direction and intensity, the Red Devils failed to rise to Tuesday’s occasion. As a result, they’re on the brink of missing the competition’s quarterfinals for a third straight season.

(MORE: Manchester United sinks to new depths in 2-0 Champions League loss at Olympiakos)

  • Manchester United couldn’t get up for a big game

Manchester United aren’t alive in either the League or FA Cups. The gap between themselves and fourth place Liverpool in the Premier League suggests they have almost no chance to finish in England’s Champions League spots. Their only way to avoid missing the competition for the first time since in 18 years is to pull a 2011-12 Chelsea and run the table. They need to  win it all.

Yet against an Olympiakos team that would fail to place one of their starters in United’s Tuesday XI, the Red Devils were clearly second best. Their offensive shape portrayed a side playing not to lose, with the Red Devils’ spacing more indicative of a team trying to use up time than combine for opportunities. This was Alex Ferguson’s typical shut it down on the road plan, only it wasn’t Alex Ferguson’s team. This was a team that allowed the game to be dictated to them – one that gave itself no opportunity to generate (let alone seize upon) opponents’ mistakes.

Manchester United was completely devoid of urgency in what should have been their most important game of the season. If they wanted to play for a 0-0, they should have fought for that result, however misguided that plan seems. Instead, they allowed Olympiakos a first half lead, seemed content to let Joel Campbell try to double in shortly after half time, and were relegated to the latest in a season full of exasperating results.

source: AP

  • It’s unclear what David Moyes wants Manchester United to do going forward

Back to United’s attack. The team’s possession number hovered at around 60 percent for the entire game, but in a first half hour where they could have used that edge to press for a vital away goal, United rarely seemed interested in establishing a presence in Olympiakos’s defensive third. Releasing both fullbacks early and relying on Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley to support the defense, United also forced Wayne Rooney to abandon his strike partner, Robin Van Persie, to fill the hole in midfield. Though Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were pinching in from their flanks, the lack of combination play through the middle left Van Persie neglected and isolated. It wasn’t until late in the match that United’s best finisher started seeing chances.

That’s what United did. The lingering question is what were they supposed to do. Were they supposed to use the middle, with those high-pushing fullbacks stretching Olympiakos’s midfield? Or were they supposed to go wide, as they’ve gone so often this season, with Young and Valencia giving the Red Devils more players to pounce on Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra crosses?

Who knows. United were so poor on Tuesday, it’s pure speculation to guess what they were trying to do going forward.

  • The Red Devils are too mistake-prone to play for a low-scoring game

Let’s assume Manchester United wanted a slow pace. They wanted to use their superior talent to manage the game, maintain possession, and limit Olympiakos’s chances. Let’s concede they would have been happy with a 0-0, thrilled to see a counter attack or a set piece result in an away goal.

Let’s also acknowledge that with Manchester United’s talent, this is a terrible choice.

Even without Juan Mata (cup-tied), Manchester United’s strength is its depth and variety in attack. They have Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney as focal points. In Michael Carrick, they have a registra that’s capable of getting them the ball. With pieces like Young, Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck, David Moyes had a series of imperfect yet useful pieces he could mix-and-match to take advantage of his opponents weaknesses. As evidenced in their group stage performances against Bayer Leverkusen (nine goals over two games), United’s attack can take advantage of Champions League’s middle tier.

But the team also has a mistake prone defense, with age continuing to show in the play of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. They also have a central midfield incapable of protecting that duo, and while neither of those factors were evident on Olympiakos’s first goal, each came into play on the second. Cleverley lost possession, Carrick failed to make a crucial tackle, and Ferdinand did not get out to meet Joel Campbell’s shot. Again, Manchester United was left reliant on the shot stopping of David de Gea, only this time, the talent Spaniard couldn’t save them.

With a back line that features Chris Smalling, Vidic, and Ferdinand, Moyes can’t play for clean sheets. When his defenders are on their game, those results will certainly come, but when they’re not clicking, the Red Devils don’t have the guile of John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic – a trio with the ability to preserve a result even if the initial plan doesn’t work.

If Moyes’s initial plan was to play for a clean sheet on the road, it was a poor one. While that may be one of the first pages in the Champions League playbook, it was also a poor fit got his personnel.

Blessed with elite attacking talent, Moyes should have played for a high scoring result. Instead, he allowed his team to leave Piraeus trailing by two.

Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace: Benteke haunts Klopp

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  • Palace win third-straight at Anfield
  • Christian Benteke scores twice
  • Liverpool slip up in top four race
  • Eagles 7 points above drop zone

Crystal Palace stunned Liverpool at Anfield once again on Sunday as the Eagles fought back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 and added to their recent impressive wins against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Phillipe Coutinho gave Liverpool the lead with a stunning free kick but just before half time Christian Benteke made it 1-1 and then the former Liverpool striker headed home in the second half to give Palace a precious three points.

With the win the Eagles are on 38 points and move up to 12th place as they surge away from the relegation zone, while Liverpool remain on 66 points and can feel Manchester City and Manchester United breathing down their neck in the race for the top four.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Liverpool started the game well but found it tough to break down a stubborn Palace defense and the Eagles always looked dangerous on the break.

One of their breaks saw the ball drop to Benteke but the former Liverpool dragged his effort wide of the post after beating two players.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Coutinho soon had Liverpool ahead as the Brazilian magician curled home a stunning free kick for his 10th Premier League goal of the season. 1-0 to the Reds.

Just before half time Palace were level as sloppy defending let in Yohan Cabaye and his perfect cross was tapped home by Benteke against his former club. 1-1. Benteke had another shot on target before half time but Simon Mignolet saved as Palace were buoyed by their equalizer.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

In the second half Coutinho danced free on the edge of the box but smashed an effort way over as Palace sat in deep and frustrated Liverpool’s attack.

Palace threatened at the other end from set pieces and Benteke caused mayhem in the 71st minute but Cabaye smashed an effort over the bar with the goal gaping.

Moments later Benteke put Palace ahead as Andros Townsend‘s corner from the right missed everyone and the Belgian nodded home his second goal of the game. 2-1 to the Eagles.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Late on Liverpool pushed hard for the equalizer but Palace held on for their third-straight win at Anfield and all but secured their Premier League status for another season.

Arsenal 2-1 Man City: Gunners reach FA Cup final

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Arsenal beat Manchester City 2-1 after extra time at Wembley on Sunday as Arsene Wenger got the better of Pep Guardiola to set up an FA Cup final against Chelsea.

Sergio Aguero put City ahead in the second half but Nacho Monreal equalized in normal time and then Alexis Sanchez scored the winning goal in extra time to seal the Gunners spot in the FA Cup final on May 27 at Wembley.

It will be an all-London affair in the FA Cup final and it could perhaps be Wenger’s final game in charge.

[ MORE: Full FA Cup schedule ] 

Aguero went close early but made a mess of a patient build up play and David Silva‘s header was pushed over by Petr Cech, while Arsenal had the ball in the net at the other end but Laurent Koscielny was offside as he flicked the ball past Claudio Bravo.

City were forced into an early change as Silva limped off after a collision and Raheem Sterling came on and soon after Aguero went down in the box under a challenge from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but referee Craig Pawson waved away the appeals.

Aguero slammed a shot into the side-netting as half time approached with City controlling the possession but failing to break through. A huge moment of controversy arrived five minutes before half time as Leroy Sane’s cross was flagged to have gone out of play as Aguero and then Sterling both finished but replays showed it had stayed in.

A huge let-off for Arsenal and right on half time they could’ve had a penalty kick as Jesus Navas bundled over Sanchez in the box.

In the second half it was Arsenal who put City under pressure as Fernandinho gave the ball away on the edge of the box and Olivier Giroud‘s effort was blocked by Nicolas Otamendi.

Moments later City were 1-0 up as Aaron Ramsey was robbed by Yaya Toure and Aguero raced free from Monreal and dinked home to put City ahead. The goal was Aguero’s fifth in as many FA Cup appearances this season and with 12 goals in his last 12 games he now has 166 for City, taking him to tied second on their all-time list of scorers.

Mesut Ozil flashed an effort just wide of the post after City went ahead as the Gunners continued to push forward in pursuit of an equalizer.

The leveler arrived with less than 20 minutes to go as Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fine cross from the right found Monreal at the back post and the Spanish left back nonchalantly smashed home with the outside of his right foot. 1-1. Game on.

Moments later Toure’s stunning volley was superbly saved by the fingertips of Cech as the ball hit the post and came out and soon after Fernandinho’s header cannoned off the bar as City pushed hard for a late winner.

Substitute Danny Welbeck went so close to snatching the win for Arsenal in normal time but the former Manchester United striker lashed an effort inches wide of the far post after breaking free.

In extra time it was Arsenal who could’ve gone 2-1 up as Rob Holding headed over the bar from close range. Soon after Sanchez did put Arsenal ahead as Welbeck missed his kick but Sanchez controlled and finished clinically to make it 2-1.

At the other end Sterling’s cross was cleared by Holding and the sub was subbed at the half time of extra time with Kelechi Iheanacho coming on as City’s fourth substitute as the new FA rules were used.

Fabian Delph, another sub, was put in by Kevin De Bruyne in the 110th minute but Hector Bellerin deflected his effort wide at the crucial moment then De Bruyne flashed an effort just wide as City poured forward for an equalizer.

In the end Arsenal held on to seal a third FA Cup final appearance in the last four seasons.

VIDEO: Coutinho curls home stunning free kick

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Philippe Coutinho was at it again at Anfield on Sunday.

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The Brazilian magician curled home a stunning free kick in the first half to put Liverpool 1-0 up against Crystal Palace.

Click play on the video above to watch his 10th Premier League goal of the season as Wayne Hennessey couldn’t get close to it.

How Martial’s goal cost United $10.8 million; Pogba injury update

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You could perhaps forgive Manchester United’s hierarchy for not celebrating Anthony Martial‘s goal against Burnley with the usually zest…

[ MORE: United see off Burnley ]

That’s because Martial’s strike in the 2-0 victory at Turf Moor on Sunday was his 25th for United.

‘So what?’ you might be asking. Well, when Martial arrived at Old Trafford as a teenager in the summer of 2015 his transfer from AS Monaco was heavily incentivized with documents leaked in recent weeks showing many clauses in place which could see the deal rise to over $80 million over the years.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Monaco are now owed an extra $10.8 million with Martial scoring his 25th goal for United and it was just his eighth goal of the season as he’s mostly been used as a sub by Jose Mourinho.

If Martial reaches 25 caps for the French national team before 2019 while at United (he’s currently on 15) Monaco will get another $10.8 million and if he wins the Ballon d’Or before 2019 Monaco will also get another $10.8 million.

That’s some deal for the Ligue 1 side but Martial will be playing a lot more games in the coming weeks with Zlatan Ibrahimovic out for the season with a horror knee injury.

Staying in United news, and finances, the most expensive player on the planet, Paul Pogba, hobbled off towards the end of the victory.

Speaking after the game Mourinho confirmed that he’s “not sure” if Pogba will play against Manchester City on Thursday and singled out the displays of Eric Bailly and Pogba after both had played the full 120 minutes against Anderlecht on Thursday.

“We wanted Anthony Martial to get behind as he’s faster, and he did well. But I can’t choose an individual performance as they all did well,” Mourinho said. “Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly get a mention after two hours of football against Anderlecht.”

United will be sweating on the fitness of Pogba ahead of the monster clash against City as United’s win means they’re now just one point and one place behind their crosstown rivals who occupy the final UEFA Champions League spot in the Premier League standings.