Olympiacos vs. Manchester United: Preview

Michael Regan

No one will mistake Manchester United for Champions League contenders, but they're still better than Olympiacos. Right?

No one expected David Moyes to pick up where Alex Ferguson left off at Manchester United. Not only was Moyes walking into his first huge job, he was taking over a team that Ferguson magically guided to honors despite its complete lack of a midfield. The securing of a midfield was left to CEO Ed Woodward, who has lots of football business experience but minimal experience as a lead transfer negotiator. Suffice to say, things haven't gone according to plan.

Still, even though Moyes was thrown into a tough situation -- managing a club that was not equipped for success even though trophies are expected -- he was expected to do better than this. Surely the team that won last year's Premier League title and retained its best players would sink to fourth in the Premier League at worst, right?

Nope, they stink. They're seventh in the Premier League, they have almost no shot at fourth and they just dropped £37 million on Juan Mata, who is just a slightly different version of Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, and most decidedly not a central midfielder. Also, he's cap-tied and can't play in the Champions League, where United are going to have to focus all of their efforts going forward. They're out of the domestic cups and they'll need something like 30 points from their last 33 to have a shot at fourth place, so this is their everything.

Things are so bad at Old Trafford that the once unthinkable -- losing a Champions League Round of 16 tie against Olympiacos -- seems like a thing that could actually happen. It's not terribly likely, but Olympiacos are no pushovers, as evidenced by their performance in a tough group. They're light on stars, but they're deep and they have a couple of young players who can create magic out of nowhere.

United are clear favorites, but they'll pay on Tuesday if they're not prepared.

Team news

Olympiacos has been playing Javier Saviola, who has been a second striker for them, at center forward following the sale of Kostas Mitroglou. But he picked up an injury over the weekend, so expect to see Marko Šćepović get a run up top. Nelson Valdez has just returned from an ankle injury, however, so it's possible that he could play striker instead. A handful of other players were rested over the weekend and Saviola is believed to be the only first team player who is unavailable.

Manchester United are still a bit thin in defense, with Jonny Evans and Phil Jones not traveling to Greece with injuries. However, Rafael has made the trip, so he should at least be in the 18-man squad. Marouane Fellaini has recently returned from injury and could play, but Moyes might opt for Darren Fletcher, not wanting to use Fellaini twice in one week so soon after his recovery. Mata, as previously mentioned, is cap-tied and cannot play in this game.

Projected lineups (left to right)

Olympiacos (4-2-3-1): Roberto; Jose Holebas, Kostas Manolas, Avraam Papadopoulos, Leandro Salino; Paulo Machado, Giannis Maniatis; Michael Olaitan, David Fuster, Joel Campbell; Marko Šćepović

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): David De Gea; Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, Rafael; Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher; Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia; Robin van Persie

football formations

Predicting lineups for an Olympiacos match is a mostly futile exercise, but we've done so anyway. They rotate their players constantly and have quite a few players who can play in multiple positions. If anyone predicts eight of their starting XI correctly, they should be commended for their accuracy.

Key Matchups

United's fullbacks vs. Olympiacos' wingers - Joel Campbell and Michael Olaitan starting wide seems likely, but Olympiacos could throw out any combination of wide players. However, they're almost certain to play one of them, and United will probably have some trouble dealing with their pace down the flanks on the counter, particularly on their left flank. If Rafael starts for United, he could get caught cheating forward. If Chris Smalling starts at right back, he'll be made to look like an out of position central defender. If Antonio Valencia starts on the right wing, he could mitigate some of this threat.

Olympiacos' center of midfield vs. Wayne Rooney - United tends to go as Wayne Rooney goes. At his best, he's virtually unplayable. When he's not on his game, he can make average defensive midfielders look like Claude Makelele. In any event, he'll probably be the center of United's attack, and it's usually easier to stop him from getting on the ball in dangerous spots than it is to get him off the ball once he receives it. Whatever two defensive midfielders start for Olympiacos will have to be focused on keeping him from getting the ball in central attacking areas.

Prediction

Moyes' United have been a serious disappointment in just about every respect this season, but they're better than Olympiacos. They're not ambitious enough or in good enough form to turn this into a rout, but they should definitely win. 2-1 United.

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