Manchester United v Olympiakos: Finally, some fighting talk emanating from Old Trafford
Patrice Evra delivers words of intent as David Moyes' men attempt to overturn two-goal deficit against Olympiakos
Wednesday 19 March 2014
If this is to be Patrice Evra's final season at Old Trafford, then he is leaving Manchester United much as he found it.
When he arrived with Nemanja Vidic in the January of 2006, United were a bleeding and bewildered institution. They had returned from Lisbon having finished bottom of their Champions League group. The Chelsea of Jose Mourinho were streaking away with the league and, inside their great stadium, the revolt against the takeover by the Glazer family was gathering a furious pace. It was Sir Alex Ferguson's 20th year in charge and many imagined it would be his last.
He survived, he always did, but his successor does not possess the aura that comes with championships and European Cups. Unless he can avoid being knocked out of the Champions League by Olympiakos, David Moyes' future might be measured in days. Evra may have longer, though likely to leave in the summer, probably to join Vidic at Internazionale.
"It is not a good day to talk about my future because the most important thing is Manchester United's future, not mine," he said. "When I put on the Manchester United shirt I will give everything. No matter if I stay or leave, that is the most important thing. I want to show all my team-mates and the staff that they can count on me.
"It has been a difficult season for everyone. We are not used to losing games but everyone is going to fight for this club, everyone loves this club and in life you always have a second chance. I am not going to tell you we are going to qualify but I promise the fans will be proud of us after the game."
It was about time somebody talked like this. When Ferguson took his leave of Manchester United he demanded of the Stretford End that they back his successor, but you wonder whether he forced the same pledge from his players.
When the 1970 United squad was called together to be informed that Wilf McGuinness, a good football man wholly unable to fill the void left by Sir Matt Busby, had been sacked Brian Kidd rounded on his team-mates. "You bastards," he yelled. "You let him down."
Moyes has been betrayed by his players on an almost weekly basis and yet he has seldom given the impression that he understands the depth of the crisis that faces the biggest football brand in the world, who invited the cream of their sponsors to watch the abject surrender to Liverpool.
In his programme notes for Sunday's game, when United produced what even by their flimsy standards was the most gutless display of a disastrous season, Moyes wrote: "From what I see, positivity is growing every day around the AON Training Complex. What goes on there is completely different to what people perceive the situation to be at Manchester United."
It was Moyes as Marie Antoinette, breathtakingly out of touch with the reality beyond the barricaded, single-track road that leads to United's training ground. Now, with the enemy at the gates, there was a realisation that it was time for some frank talking. If Manchester United are to go out of the Champions League, Moyes thought they might as well go down fighting.
"The support inside Old Trafford has been phenomenal," he said. "The players will tell you that the first thing I mentioned [after the Liverpool game] was that we need to give something back – me and the team. We need to make sure we give them a night to remember. We will leave nothing behind."
Looked at coldly and dispassionately, Manchester United's task is not that daunting. Olympiakos have lost every one of the 11 games they have played in England. They are champions of a near-bankrupt Greek League. This is the supreme moment of a season in which they have seldom been tested and the danger is they may freeze.
Their manager, Michel, who had watched United's capitulation against Liverpool, smiled: "My players are afraid of nothing. I am a little bit more scared than they are but I won't be on the pitch."
The feeling among the Olympiakos players is that they would have to score to reach the quarter-finals. Simply protecting a 2-0 lead would not be enough.
Nevertheless, the image of Manchester United as a club that forever came back from the brink is somewhat misplaced. Only twice in their history have they overturned a 2-o first-leg deficit. Curiously, both times the year ended in a four and Ferguson was not in charge.
The last was in 1984, when a side driven on by Bryan Robson overcame a Barcelona that featured Diego Maradona at a fevered Old Trafford. Evra, too, has experienced it when France, ridiculed and written off, overcame Ukraine to reach the European Championship.
"We let the storm pass," said Evra. "It was a difficult day after the game, we didn't expect to lose 2-0 in Ukraine but after two days everyone was focused. We stood together and we played for the people who love us, our families and our fans. We gave everything.
"I am not someone to sit here and dream and say Manchester United are going to qualify but I believe we can overcome the situation and I think this team is good under pressure. But I've said too many words now. We have to show it on the pitch."
Old Trafford crisis: United's recent record
Man United have won just two of their last seven games:
1 Feb PL Stoke (a) L 2-1
9 Feb PL Fulham (h) D 2-2
12 Feb PL Arsenal (a) D 0-0
22 Feb PL Crystal Palace (a) W 2-0
25 Feb CL Olympiakos (a) L 2-0
8 Mar PL West Brom (a) W 3-0
16 Mar PL Liverpool (h) L 3-0
Wed CL Olympiakos (h)
Sat PL West Ham (a)
Tues PL Man City (h)
29 Mar PL Aston Villa (h)
5 Apr PL Newcastle (a)
20 Apr PL Everton (a)
Villas-Boas joins Zenit but misses Dortmund tie
Andre Villas-Boas, the former Chelsea and Tottenham coach, will take the reins at Zenit St Petersburg this week after agreeing a two-year contract, but will not be in the dugout for their Champions League trip to Borussia Dortmund.
Caretaker Sergei Semak will be in charge of the Russian side for the last-16 return leg, with Zenit trailing 4-2. Villas-Boas, who was sacked by Tottenham in December, is understood to have signed a deal worth €8.5m (£7.15m) per season.
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