For all David Moyes’ travails this season, a Quarter Final appearance in Europe’s premier competition represents our best showing for three seasons and, for that, he should be applauded.
The away leg against Olympiacos aside (which was the worst performance I’ve seen from a United team in thirty years), we have actually looked like a half-decent side in this competition so far.
However, it cannot be denied that Bayern Munich represent our toughest challenge by a country mile.
Bayern Munich have been, hands down, the best team in Europe for the last couple of years.
The way they completely dismantled the mighty Barcelona in last year’s competition was a sight to behold and, had you not watched the tie, you’d have thought the 7-0 aggregate score (4-0 home, 3-0 away) was a misprint or, on a day like today, some kind of joke.
This season, they have shown little sign that they are any less of a force and their win over Arsenal in the previous round was perhaps less convincing but it was clinical and professional.
At this stage of the competition, the bookies make Bayern quite strong favourites to lift the European Cup again and with good reason. Not only are they probably the best team left in the competition but, having already secured the Bundesliga title, they have an advantage over at least half of the teams left in this competition as those others look likely to be involved in domestic league title challenges until the last day of the season.
Bayern can now more or less concentrate solely on this competition.
This was in evidence over the weekend as Pep Guardiola took full advantage of the situation to give several key players a rest against Hoffenheim. That match ended with what, under any other circumstance, would have been a shock 3-3 draw but, in the current situation, represented just a further cementing of the fact that even when leaving out some big-hitters and having little to play for, Bayern couldn’t be beaten.
The match didn’t come without some cost to Bayern, though, as Thiago suffered a knee injury which could well mean that his season is over.
Anyway, that’s enough about Bayern for now. What about ourselves?
Well, to say that we’ve been pretty poor for the bulk of this season is an understatement and it has to be said that it is against the better opponents that we’ve been most exposed.
The 4-1 victory over Aston Villa over the weekend might have been a welcome fillip for the beleaguered David Moyes in the same way that the 2-0 win over West Ham was a welcome victory a couple of weeks ago.
Those results cannot erase the fact that they are set amongst a sequence of results that include two 3-0 defeats at Old Trafford against Liverpool and Man City and as well as those two teams may be playing at the moment, the suggestion is that Bayern are better.
My main concern going into this match is the same concern I’ve had for much of the season – our defence.
Sometimes due to needless tinkering and sometimes due to injury, I don’t think Moyes has played the same back-four twice at any point this season. This really isn’t good.
The best United teams of the past were based on a pretty settled back-four. Yes, Fergie would rotate here and there but when the big boys came to town, only an injury or suspension to one of the key components would prevent him from going with his first-choice defensive line-up.
A defence of Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra all at their peak would inspire some confidence that we might be able to thwart Bayern here.
Unfortunately, Ferdinand is now so far from his peak that he’s barely recognisable, Vidic, who has always been a bit of a liability is now a liability with one foot through the exit door and Evra, even if he wasnt’t suspended for this match, is now challenging the Trade Descriptions Act for the term “defender”.
So, this does look like the defence Moyes will put out will be another hotch-potch of the untried, the cobbled-together and the unknown.
Buttner looks likely to take Evra’s place and, I suspect Jones and Vidic may well take the central positions. There seem to be doubts about Rafael’s fitness and, if unable to play, then it looks likely that Smalling will occupy the right-back spot.
Had at least three of those four played together many times this season and had a bundle of clean-sheets behind them, I’d be feeling a little more confident right now but, as it stands, it is hard not to be concerned.
I suppose that in the face of this, there are two schools of thought as to how we should approach this match.
The first involves being solid, taking few risks and playing to frustrate Bayern and spoil their game-plan.
The second is the view that attack is the best form of defence and, if a clean-sheet is unlikely then let’s go all out to score as many of our own as we can and throw all caution to the wind.
The second is a little how we played the last time we faced Bayern at Old Trafford four years ago.
The first is probably a little more familiar to David Moyes, though.
Beyond the defence, Moyes has a few decisions to make. With Mata being ineligible for this competition and Van Persie injured, it does make his task a little easier but there is still scope for him to get it horribly wrong and, based on some of his team selections so far this season, he has it in him to do it again.
It could well be that Moyes goes for a five-man midfield with Rooney playing up-front of his own and I wouldn’t have many qualms about that.
It’s the five behind him that are the concern and if Moyes plays either Cleverley or Young then I will have no alternative but to give up on him as a lost cause who learns nothing from his mistakes.
One player I would like to see is Kagawa and a Kagawa played more centrally behind Rooney. Moyes has given him a few chances of late and he has shown his quality but I think he needs a run of games to really get settled. The stop-start nature of his time at Manchester United has really done him no favours whatsoever (that and being mostly played out of position).
He’s no stranger to beating Bayern Munich, though and I think I’m right in saying that when at Dortmund, he played against Bayern four times and was never on the losing side.
So, how will this game go?
Well, the obvious view to take is that Bayern will be too strong in midfield and that we will spend most of the time without the ball. Then there are their wide players Robben and Ribery who could well have Smalling and Buttner (or whoever Moyes puts out there) for dinner. Then there’s the possibility that one of them will get into the box and Jones or, (more likely) Vidic, will concede a penalty and be given a red card making an already very difficult task next to impossible.
What this will mean is that Bayern will win comfortably this evening and another 3-0 (or worse) defeat is not out of the question.
However, I’m going to put on my red-tinted specs for the remainder of this article and clutch at a few straws.
Firstly, I don’t put an awful lot of importance on how good Bayern have been in the Bundesliga this season. I think the English Premier League is a far better, more competitive league.
The Bundesliga is basically Bayern then all the rest.
Bayer Leverkusen finished second in the Bundesliga last season and you might remember how, despite the fact that we’re having our worst season for twenty-odd years, we still managed to beat them home and away in our Group Stage clashes for a 9-2 aggregate score (which really could have been even more convincing for us had we not missed a couple of sitters).
If you’re thinking that this is because Leverkusen are not the force they were last season then consider that they are currently 4th in the Bundesliga and, if they stay there, will qualify for next season’s Champions League again.
Secondly, I do take some heart from how Arsenal played against Bayern Munich in the last round.
Bayern Munich were generally better than Arsenal and I do believe that they would have beaten Arsenal even if Arsenal hadn’t suffered the triple-whammy of having their keeper sent off meaning Bayern took the lead through the resulting penalty but I think Bayern found Arsenal a fairly tough nut to crack. (In any case, am I the only person in the world who thought that the way Robben went lunging in with foot chest-high and studs showing was far more dangerous than anything our own Nani did against a Real Madrid player last season? I am? Oh… ok. fair enough.)
Despite the fact that our league table suggests otherwise, I do believe that we’re still a better, stronger side than Arsenal and if Moyes gets it right with his selections and those selected give 100% (I have no doubts that they will) then we’re not quite the massive underdogs that our odds (13/2 with some at the time of writing – the highest price Manchester United have been for a home game in twenty years) suggest.
In any case, if favourites always won football matches, the bookies would have long since gone out of business.
Thirdly, no team has ever successfully defended this title. I don’t really know why this is but it remains a fact. I do suspect that a little bit of luck comes into play. Being largely a knock-out tournament then you only need one game in which things don’t really go for you and it can be curtains.
The team that wins this competition isn’t always truly “the best team in Europe”. Sometimes it can be a team that plays well but also gets a few breaks along the way.
Fourthly, we have Ryan Giggs. The architect of our 3-0 win over Olympiacos a few weeks ago was in fine form in yesterday’s pre-match press conference – he really has grown from the slightly shy young man of yesteryear.
He might not have played as often as he’d have liked this season and he might not be as hands-on in his coaching role as he’d like but he’s the role model on and off the pitch right now.
Not only can the players learn an awful lot from him but so can David Moyes.
Whilst David Moyes trotted out his usual asinine rubbish in the press conference, Giggs took over the mic and spoke like a true Manchester United manager should speak and I’m sure that the words he chose were as much for the ears of David Moyes as the gathered press. It was an attempt to arrest the alarming slump into mediocrity that Moyes has tried to foist upon the club in order to make his mediocre self feel more at home, to remind him and everyone else that this is Manchester United – the club that has been going into battle with the likes of Bayern for decades and usually giving as good as we’ve got.
It was a reminder to Moyes and everyone else that, for all Moyes might have said about how even Sir Alex would have struggled with this group of players the other day, that this group of players are largely the same group that reached three Champions League Finals in four years and stunned Bayern by racing ahead to a 2-0 lead inside seven minutes the last time they came to Old Trafford four years ago.
“We are Manchester United and we are playing at home and we don’t see ourselves as underdogs“, said Giggs.
Were you listening, David Moyes?
“You are talking about two huge clubs, with great histories who play football the right way“, said Giggs.
Were you listening, David Moyes?
So, the final straw I’m going to clutch is one that looks a bit like this:-
That Moyes breaks the habit of a lifetime and really goes for it with both his team selection and tactics.
That Moyes sends the team out here to win and to really rattle Bayern. That this leads Bayern into making a few mistakes (possibly even in their own penalty area) and that we’re the beneficiary of luck’s fickleness for once this season.
Come On, United!