Between league, cups, and Europe, Manchester United has already lost 10 times since David Moyes took over, and while many of those defeats have come against teams more talented than the Red Devils’ Tuesday opponents, Olympiacos’s mere two loses force us to reconsider our assumptions. There’s supposed to be a huge divide between the quality needed to compete in the Premier League and a squad that can claim Greece’s Super League, but given United’s stumbling outside of England’s Champions League spots while Olympiacos has a 20-point lead in Greece, the contrast is not so clear. With the Greek champions’ only defeats during the 2013-14 campaign coming against French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, the assumed gap between United and their Tuesday hosts may not exist.
“United are a top-class team and I will not comment on their form,” Olympiacos head coach Michel said about the Red Devils’ stumbles under Moyes. The Spain-born boss eventually relented, conceded United’s league form is not completely irrelevant. “They cannot afford to make any errors given their position in the Premier League. We also can’t afford to give anything less than 100 percent.”
But what does 100 percent get Olympiacos, particularly given the club’s willingness let their most dangerous player, Kostas Mitroglou, leave for Fulham in the January window (albeit for $20 million)? Young Costa Rican international Joel Campbell represents a point of danger up top, as does the recently acquired Nelson Valdez, who will be able to compensate for the absence of the injured Javier Saviola. But throughout the rest of the team, their lack the talent is still evident when compare to the considerable names at Moyes’ disposal.
Among those names is Wayne Rooney, who celebrated a new contract that pays him in excess of $25 million per year with a wonderfully volleyed goal at Crystal Palace. The England international is complemented by Dutch forward Robin Van Persie, with the likes of midfielder Michael Carrick and goalkeeper David de Gea adding to the list of enviable talents likely to feature in Moyes’ Wednesday XI. Position-for-position, whether we’re talking about Ashley Young (who will likely start in place of the cup-tied Juan Mata) or Darren Fletcher (a potential choice along side Carrick in the middle), Moyes will start 11 players who would start of Olympiacos, making the Red Devils decisive favorites if we were to judge this match up on talent alone.
But talent hasn’t been United’s problem. Results have. Though critics continue to (perhaps correctly) harp on a midfield that can’t match up against Europe’s elites, United still enter a vast majority of its games as the most talented team on the field. It’s Moyes’s inability to translate that talent into results has defined the campaign, one that’s likely to leave United outside Champions League for the first Premier League era.
That’s where the teams’ 2013-14 records becomes particularly informative. Olympiacos may have an easy time of it in Greece, but in a Champions League group that also included Anderlecht, Benfica, and Paris Saint-Germain, they only lost to the high-powered Parisians, sending the favored Portuguese to Europa League. In that sense, Michel’s team’s transcending their talent, having reached the final 16 when few thought they’d get out of their group. Even before being drawn against United, Olympiacos showed they can transcend the names on the teamsheet.
In contrast, though they have been impressive against Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk in Champions League, Manchester United has spent the better part of the season playing down to their opponents’ level, as evidenced by their 10 losses. Though they are rightly considered favorites ahead of Tuesday’s kickoff, these new Red Devils have shown a new tendency to play beneath that role. Combine that pattern with a trip to face an Olympiacos team that’s not accustomed to losing, and it’s enough to wonder if a Mata-less United can carry over the form they exhibited this weekend against Crystal Palace.