Manchester United fans have been looking toward the past all season, mostly to keep themselves sane in the face of the Red Devils’ shocking swoon. Sitting seventh in the Premier League with six games to go, past years’ glory is all fans have in the face of what’s been an expected post-Alex Ferguson awakening. So it makes sense, one day before the three-time European Champions face last year’s UEFA Champions League winners, that new manager David Moyes is also looking at happier times for inspiration in the face of enormous odds.
“We are playing against a good side, but it is the sort of night where in recent history United have risen to the occasion,” Moyes said, with Bayern Munich set to visit Old Trafford on Tuesday. The teams’ first leg in Stretford represents a virtual one-versus-eight matchup, with the tournament’s worst surviving team drawn against a club trying to become the first team in 24 years to win back-to-back European titles.
München carry that favorites’ flags, with the team two-time Champions League-winner Pep Guardiola inherited this summer looking even stronger than the group that took last year’s title. Having already clinched their second-straight Bundesliga crown, the Bavarians had the luxury of resting half their squad for this weekend’s visit from Hoffenheim, with the resulting draw 3-3 shrinking their lead at the top to a still staggering 23 points. It also raised their goals allowed total to 16, with only Italy’s Roma having allowed fewer among Europe’s top five leagues.
“Coaches around the world don’t like being called favorites before the game, but I can’t argue,” Guardiola confessed, begrudgingly. “I have to accept it because last season Bayern won everything and this season we have won the title with seven games to spare.”
It’s not a view that’s shared by everybody on the opposing bench.
“[W]e are Manchester United, it’s at Old Trafford and we’ve seen so many great nights there, in Europe especially. As players we don’t see ourselves as underdogs,” Ryan Giggs explained, his presence at the pre-match press conference hinting he’ll play on Tuesday, “we see ourselves as Man United playing at home in the Champions League.”
Perhaps that kind of naiveté is necessary when you’re in the Red Devils’ position, but you need only look to Bayern’s other trips to England this season to realize United’s long. In the Round of 16, Bayern took a 2-0 result out of the Emirates on its way to eliminating Arsenal. In October, the same Manchester City team that recently won 3-0 at Old Trafford was handed a 3-1 by the defending champions. Even at Old Trafford — even against a team United beat in the 1999 final (a reference point that has been alluded to in bizarre fashion this week) — the Red Devils are decisive underdogs.
It’s a status that forces us to ask how United can win, but with Robin Van Persie sidelined with a knee injury, a team needing a puncher’s chance is without one of its best weapons. Though Wayne Rooney will be available, Juan Mata will not, the former Chelsea man cup-tied as a result of his time with the Blues. Starting left back Patrice Evra is suspended, leaving Alexander Buttner to match up against Bayern right winger Arjen Robben. Defenders Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are also out.
Thiago Alcántara’s knee injury means Bayern has its own fitness concerns ahead of Tuesday’s match, while Dante will join Evra among those banned from the match. But with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, and Phillip Lahm all available, Guardiola will still have everything he needs to leverage his biggest advantage: an overwhelming edge in the middle of the park, one that matches up against what’s generally perceived to be Manchester United’s greatest weakness.
Perhaps under Ferguson, the Red Devils could navigate England with the likes of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley in midfield. But even then, teams that relied on Darren Fletcher or an aging Paul Scholes would be overwhelmed by Guardiola’s Barcelona, who beat the Ferguson twice in Champions League finals. Now, with a team that’s keeping 69.2 percent possession in Europe (71.4 pct. in Germany), Guardiola is again set to highlight what United fans have said for years: The Red Devils need to be stronger in the middle.
Over the course of one leg, however, anything can happen. Execute on a set piece, benefit from a sending off, or get a magical night from goalkeeper David de Gea, and United can get an unlikely result. But contrary to what Giggs says, that result is very unlikely. As Arsenal and City found out, home field can only do so much against a superior opponent.