For the 26 years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign Manchester United looked forward to every Champions League game – the better the opposition, the bigger their anticipation.
How the times are changing.
Today, both struggling United and high-flying Manchester City discovered who they will face in the Champions League round-of-16 in February.
In southwest Manchester, David Moyes and his staff will have breathed a collective sigh of relief as United were matched with Olympiakos, the forty-times Greek champions but perennial Champions League strugglers.
Strangely, United’s record in Europe has been far better than their domestic showing – four points clear of a group containing the Ukrainian champions and the Bundesliga’s second-placed team, while in the Premier League they are languishing ten points and seven places off the top.
It could be something to do with the dissipation of the aura that melted away with Sir Alex’s tenure – in the league United have succumbed to West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Everton at home this season.
Domestically, visiting teams are clearly less tentative when they go to Old Trafford, but perhaps in Europe the word has not spread quite so quickly?
Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad only conceded one goal a-piece, with Sociedad finishing bottom of the group despite being the only team to not lose to United, but, other than short bursts in the Shakhtar game, neither really threatened in Manchester.
Despite victory in Europe looking far more likely than a 21st league title, United will require divine intervention if they think – as Rafael da Silva opined the other day – that they can go all the way.
Drawing Olympiakos is a start, and the relief of dodging a trip to the San Siro or Russia could dramatically improve their ailing domestic form.
The busy Christmas period – which to Moyes must have seemed monumental without Robin van Persie – will feel far less daunting knowing that, without getting arrogant, they have drawn perhaps the easiest tie of the lot.
It is just what Moyes will have wanted – he can reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League during his first foray into the competition proper despite enduring a miserable few months in charge, silencing the majority of the doubters and securing a boost to his transfer pot in the process.
It won’t be a solution but it will give the manager time to find one, while hopefully freeing up his players to focus on the games ahead rather than fret over what lies on the horizon.
The way they have played over the last few months United may have to bank on Olympiakos’ nerves crumbling in the face of their reputation, if it is still intact by then, but still, it could have been a lot worse.
Two-and-a-half miles away in east Manchester, United’s sky blue rivals will be taking a slightly different approach – understandable when you have just drawn Barcelona, a side that were mooted as the best in history just a couple of seasons ago.
But City will not be groaning or quivering in their boots.
They have just beaten Barca’s successors to the ‘world’s best’ title, Bayern Munich, coming from two down to win 3-2 at the formidable Allianz Arena, with Manuel Pellegrini saying afterwards that the result showed how there is no difference between the two teams.
It’s a big statement, but does not tell the whole story – Bayern had already qualified and were obviously not willing to run themselves into the ground until it looked like City might snatch top spot in the group.
However, Pellegrini does have a point, and City are no longer the great pretenders that they were three years ago nor are they blighted by a manager whose irrationality penetrated the psyche of his team.
The Citizens have not been great away from home this season, but it is a definite improvement on seasons past, while their home form is somehow more frightening than it has ever been, with Pellegrini’s unmistakable pedigree clearly evident in City’s thrusting counter-attacks.
The hierarchy wanted the league title and relished it when it finally came in 2011-12, but the ultimate prize has always been the Champions League and they now have the individuals and cohesion necessary to take it.
Winning another league title would send a message to their rivals, particularly United, but Champions League success would announce to the canon of elite European clubs that their long-held territory is being encroached upon.
Would Pellegrini keep his job if he were to win the league in May but had lost to Barcelona in February?
Probably, but the statement that City’s owners want to make is that they are here, that they can compete with the very best and, more often than not, will beat them.
That is why they spend vast amounts so consistently with each transfer window, but unlike most of the nouveau riche clubs there is a sense that the expenditure is coming to fruition under the steady hand of Pellegrini.
If they had drawn a less imposing team and progressed it would leave the situation open for the critics, but by drawing Barcelona they have the chance to make that statement long before the high pressure environment of the latter stages comes around.
And with the Catalan giants no longer at their peak, the opportunity is theirs to take.
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