There’s little question that United’s performance against Olympiakos revealed elements of the team’s character and ability that have remained hidden for far too much of this season. It’s true they were hardly the quality opposition we made them look in the away leg, and certainly well below the standard of our next Champions League opponents, but they weren’t a bad side either and anything below the standard of football we produced would certainly have seen us depart the competition with the kind of whimper with which we’ve exited everything else this season.
Many people have speculated on the reasons for our abysmal form in 2013-14, most of them surrounding the ability of David Moyes and that of the team he was bequeathed by his predecessor, but certainly Wednesday’s display showed that the latter, for all their misfirings this season, have not become a lousy bunch of players overnight: they just haven’t hit the heights demanded of a Manchester United side anywhere near often enough.
There was, of course, something very different about the occasion that brought the best out of so many of them – and perhaps only Patrice Evra, so often caught out of position on the left, didn’t produce something close to his best form – and it was that, of all the last chance saloons they’ve found themselves inhabiting this season, this really was World’s End. Had we gone out on Wednesday night the season would have been over and Moyes would have had the time and space he needed to carry out whatever cull might be needed, or else fall victim to that cull himself.
Focus is something that, for me, has been the thing most apparently lacking about United this season, and focus was what we saw on Wednesday night. I cringed prior to the first leg when the press conference saw Moyes claiming we could go on and win the Champions League. It may be a cliché that you take one game at a time in football, but it’s no less a necessary element for success for all that and yet the season has been filled with comments such as ‘we need to kick on from here’ and ‘we need to get up into the top four places’ from players and management alike.
It’s given me the impression that too often this season we’ve concerned ourselves with long-term planning rather than the matter immediately in front of us. It’s like getting the builders in to plan a conservatory and patio area while ignoring the leaky roof and dry rot. On Wednesday we attended to the dry rot because we knew that, if we didn’t, the house was going to come down on top of us. I strongly hope it’s a lesson learned because there’s no question the rot has been temporarily dealt with rather than eliminated completely and, if the rest of the season doesn’t show signs of its impending removal, that house will be falling down soon enough.