There had been something of the old defiance about Manchester United's undefeated run in the Champions League under David Moyes.
There had been a belief that they could breathe the fresh air of quarter-final territory, free until then of the gladiators who have served Manchester City and Arsenal a dose of realism. And after that, who knew?
Those hopes were dealt a very heavy blow indeed on Tuesday night – as was the notion that United have advanced in the remotest way under Moyes’ stewardship. He has spoken of bad luck, described his flawed inheritance – and actually took to the pitch when the final whistle had blown here, remonstrating with the fourth official, as if to telegraph some claim that an official must take responsibility for what had just unravelled.
No one but he and his players could take the blame. There could be no disguising the fact that players have been reduced to shadows of their former selves in seven months of football and that his team are at times bereft of ideas or the faintest notion of a gameplan or philosophy. Moyes declared on Tuesday night that they may still progress, but a repeat of Liverpool’s legendary three-goal second half display against the same opposition, to secure progress in the competition nine years ago, will be tough. Liverpool did have a game plan that year, when they went on to win the competition.
United’s defence was poor – vulnerable all night and breached twice by Moyes’ players failure to place a telling challenge when it mattered. But the midfield was poorer still: flat lines, unproductive and capable of fashioning next to nothing. Considering the standard of opposition before them, this was as bad as United have got under Moyes.
United were left in no doubt about the cauldron that awaited them, as each side of the stadium alternated in a bouncing cacophony of noise during the warm-up. The 2,000 seats left empty – Uefa’s anti-racism sanction for the raising of an SS flag during the match against Anderlecht in December – were an irrelevance in a stadium where the booing of every United touch was led by a “conductor” with microphone, perched precariously on a pillar with his back to the pitch.
There had been confidence in United’s ranks during the day about the absence of Javier Saviola, the Greek side’s spearhead, and his replacement with a 21-year-old Nigerian, Michael Olaitan, with minimal experience even in the Greek league that offers such a pitiful challenge. A domestic record like this team’s – 24 wins out of 26 games, no defeats, with 78 goals scored and nine conceded – looks mighty handsome but the Greek club’s board lament the serious level of competition and the minimal preparation it offers for nights like this.
They and their conductor were given much encouragement, though, because United simply struggled to connect for much of the first half. Rio Ferdinand, looking for options to help build out of defence, found none, gesturing as he did in vain for others to go short for him. This lack of intuition, man for man, is so unlike the United we have come to know on the continent and Ferdinand could not entirely be blamed when there were repercussions. He was harried into a pass straight out of defence to Hernan Perez, a perennial danger down the Greek team’s left, who gratefully accepted the gift. It required the first of two strong challenges from Nemanja Vidic in the first ten minutes to stop him.
The weaknesses manifest in United were those which have become familiar in this poor season – a struggle to attack with any kind of pace and momentum – though the difficulty in keeping on their feet was less expected. Chris Smalling had already lost his footing once when he fell on his backside in front of the home side’s technical area, allowing Alejandro Dominguez to seize the ball and run 70 yards into the heart of the United area. Vidic again rescued his midfield from what threatened to be a goal of embarrassing dimensions.
Wayne Rooney provided what axis he could, dropping to receive the ball and deliver it into the final third, but there was nothing to trouble the home goalkeeper, Roberto, before the Olympiakos lead came six minutes before the interval.
Captain Giannis Maniatis’ low free-kick from the left was delivered into a packed penalty area, from where Dominguez – one Argentine who cannot make his own national team – stuck out a foot to send it spinning beyond the stranded David de Gea.
It had seemed bold of Moyes to leave Adnan Januzaj out of the entire squad, having brought him here and when there was no match this Saturday to rest him for. But the absence of a player who might inject some ideas into United was the last thing on their mind when the lead was doubled ten minutes into the second half.
This scorer was Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal, giving the club reason to take him back this summer. But the culprit was Michael Carrick who gifted him the opportunity, engaging in the kind of half-hearted tackle which has never belonged in a United team, which allowed Campbell to nutmeg him and curl a fine left-footed shot from 25 yards, beyond the desperate dive of De Gea.
The game was entering its last six minutes before United finally fashioned a chance. A good cross and run by Smalling found Robin van Persie, who took the ball into the penalty area, past Kostas Manolas and lifted the ball over the bar. Old Trafford will do its part in three weeks’ time but no one will be getting carried away before then. Though the Greek side are notoriously poor travellers, United have beaten a single team by three clear goals at Old Trafford once all season: a weakened Norwich City in the Capital One Cup.