Manchester United v Olympiakos - comment: United's reputation has dwindled so much under David Moyes, Europe's minnows no longer fear them
A Different League: They always used to score in the nick of time, but now they are conceding in the last second
Wednesday 19 March 2014
Listening to Cesc Fabregas earlier in the season was an education on what it has been like for everyone else in the Premier League trying to wrestle trophies away from Manchester United over the last 20 years.
The Barcelona midfielder was answering questions about his former club Arsenal's chances of winning the title and was asked about the possibility that this year United would not be one of the Gunners' rivals for the Premier League championship.
Without taking breath, he set off on the kind of monologue he would have heard, and delivered himself, during his time in London, many times before. "With Manchester there is always talk about a dip and yet they always end up there [at the top]. Always. Ten years ago I arrived in England and I've been saying for those 10 years, 'Look out, this year Manchester might have a dip', and in the end they are always there or thereabouts. It is a battle that I have given up on long ago. Whenever anyone says to me Manchester United won't be the same this year, I say, 'No, no, no, Manchester will be up there for sure.'"
If United do come back against Olympiakos and draw Barcelona in the next round, Fabregas's rhetoric is likely to be very different. Respect is one thing, but the reality of nine league defeats has taken its toll on United's reputation abroad.
"We're better than Fulham," one member of Olympiakos's coaching staff told me ahead of the first leg, after one of the worst teams in England's top flight took a point from United at Craven Cottage despite trailing going into injury time. Everyone knew the crown would slip post-Sir Alex Ferguson, but no one expected the fear factor to evaporate so quickly.
Former United goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who is now with the Greek champions, summed up the surprise at the change in the team's personality: "United always used to score in the last second and now they are conceding in the last second; it's not the first time they have done that. You would expect them to shut games down, especially when they are coming back from 1-0 down to score two goals in seven minutes against Fulham. You'd expect them to win 2-1 but one long ball up front and it's a goal."
Carroll will have been relaying that message to his team-mates in the build-up to the game, just as coach Michel will be ramming home the message that there has never been a better time for Olympiakos to break their own reputation for being pushovers in Europe away from Athens.
"There will be between 4,000 and 5,000 Greeks in Old Trafford and they are incredibly noisy," says Michel. He has fought hard to change the club's mentality after years of being satisfied with topping a Greek League they are always expected to win.
"When we arrived at the club, we saw the need to change two things," Michel added. "We needed a change of mentality and habit that made winning the league our challenge but progressing further in the Champions League the real test of our evolution."
Michel has also always been positive about having the second leg away from home. "I prefer it that way because I think you maintain the level of concentration at a much higher level," he said before the 2-0 first-leg win.
Manchester United have been reminded this week of the last time they went into a quarter-final second leg with a mountain to climb. Almost 30 years ago to the day they faced Barcelona and successfully overturned a 2-0 deficit despite the visitors including Maradona in their team. Olympiakos don't have the world's best player but then neither are they likely to come with Barça's complacency. If they are undone it will be by a lack of nerve. And United's dwindling fear factor has made that less likely to happen.
Neymar's inactivity shows Barça's needs are elsewhere
One of the enduring images from Barcelona's 7-0 win over Osasuna at the weekend was of Neymar chewing gum on the substitutes' bench for the duration. If ever there was a game to prove Barça need not have spent so much on the Brazilian in the summer this was it, with Lionel Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez all outstanding and Cristiano Tello coming on to score the game's best goal in the second half.
It's Neymar's first season and despite his recent dip, he will come good for Barcelona and probably be one of the stars of this summer's World Cup. Former president Sandro Rosell will argue that ultimately he will justify the outlay. Take coach Gerardo Martino to one side, however, and ask him if he'd swap him for a world-class defender, just for the run-in, and there would only be one answer.
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