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


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.

TFC’s Bradley: “Responsibility, privilege and passion” on line in playoffs

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Michael Bradley #4 of United States looks on against New Zealand in the second half during an International Friendly at RFK Stadium on October 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Toronto FC’s supporters fell in love with the club almost immediately, but it’s taken to Year 10 for the Reds to get a home playoff match.

The latest batch of TFC stars have embraced the battle for relevance, at times even surpassing expectations the lofty expectations of championship-starved Toronto.

[ MORE: Bradley talks TFC renaissance

This is a city which has seen the Blue Jays and Raptors find the precipice of glory in recent seasons, but not reach the apex. The Leafs haven’t been to a Stanley Cup final since the NHL had a whopping six teams.

So winning would be a mighty big accomplishment, right Michael Bradley?


“Being captain or a big player on a team in this city carries an extra weight,” said captain Michael Bradley. “I’ve loved every second of that; playing in this city, for this city, and being captain. It’ll be nights like Wednesday night where the responsibility, privilege and passion that I have for this role will get magnified that much more.”

He has a way with words, doesn’t he? The USMNT captain begins Canada’s quest for a title at 7:30 p.m. ET against visiting Philadelphia.

Whitecaps lock up Welsh coach Robinson through 2020

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 5:  Head coach Carl Robinson (right) of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC during their MLS game against the Colorado Rapids April 5, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Colorado won 2-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
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Vancouver is hanging onto stalwart coach Carl Robinson despite a massively disappointing season.

The Whitecaps were tipped to compete for the Supporters’ Shield, only to miss the playoffs. There were plenty of excuses for the ‘Caps, including an injury to Kekuta Manneh and the transfer of Octavio Rivero.

And Vancouver is alive as the No. 1 seed in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, also claiming the Cascadia Cup.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high ]

Robinson has signed an extension through 2020, from

“Carl’s body of work over the course of his five years at the club has shown that he is one of the top up-and-coming head coaches in North America. While this past season was certainly a learning experience for everyone involved within the club, we have complete faith in Carl’s continued vision in acquiring the necessary players to build a team that will compete with the best in MLS.”

Robinson turned 40 this month, and has been leading the ‘Caps since December 2013. This is a smart move for both Vancouver and its coach.

PST shortlists Major League Soccer award candidates

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
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Major League Soccer’s playoff run begins tonight with Philadelphia at Toronto and LA hosting Real Salt Lake, and it also gives us a chance to run down the regular season.

We’ve already discussed several items, including Portland and Columbus’ historic flops, DC United’s red-hot form, pre-playoff power rankings, and predictions.

[ MORE: Chalobah’s double nutmeg ]

But what about the season that was, the one that saw Bradley Wright-Phillips snag his second Golden Boot and Colorado nearly grab a shocking Supporters’ Shield?

We rounded up our staff’s opinions to put together combined shortlists for MLS awards.

Rookie of the Year

Jordan Morris (Seattle)
Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia)
Alex Muyl (RBNY)
Jack Harrison (NYCFC)
Jonathan Campbell (Chicago)

Newcomer of the Year

Ronald Matarrita (NYCFC)
Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy)
Tim Howard (Colorado)
Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle)
Jelle van Damme (LA Galaxy)
Luciano Acosta (DC United)
Ola Kamara (Columbus)
Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado)

Goalkeeper of the Year

Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy)
Andre Blake (Philadelphia)
David Bingham (San Jose)
Jake Gleeson (Portland)
Luis Robles (RBNY)

Coach of the Year

Patrick Vieira (NYCFC)
Jesse Marsch (RBNY)
Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado)
Oscar Pareja (Dallas)
Greg Vanney (Toronto)

Most Valuable Player

David Villa (NYCFC)
Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto)
Sacha Kljestan (RBNY)
Bradley Wright-Phillips (RBNY)
Ignacio Piatti (Montreal)
Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle)

Spanish FF fines Valencia for bottle toss; Chastises Barcelona

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  FC Barcelona are hit by objects thrown from the seats after Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scores his team's third goal from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Spain’s football federation has fined Valencia about $1600 for the water bottle tossed at celebrating Barcelona players on Saturday.

It’s also criticized Barca’s reaction to Neymar being hit with the water bottle.

[ MORE: Watch the incident here ]

Lionel Messi in particular flipped out at fans, who were furious after Barca scored a match-winning penalty and celebrated near the touch line.

From the BBC:

Spain’s football federation criticised the Barca players for their “exaggerated reaction” and for celebrating in front of home fans, but added “nothing justified” the reaction of the Valencia supporters.

There’s an easy joke to make about playacting/diving here, as Luis Suarez hits the deck despite not appearing to be hit.

But it’s critical to remember that these players at the moment don’t have any idea what’s happened, only that they’ve been hit. And Suarez is covering head, perhaps wondering what’s coming next. Neymar laying on the pitch for a while seems a bit overboard, but I don’t blame Messi nor his teammates for being furious with the supporters.

What do you make of it?