By Ewan Roberts
Not so long ago, Tuesday's Champions League encounter at Old Trafford would have been a clash between two titans; the reigning Premier League holders against the champions of Germany and Europe. But not any more.
Manchester United's plummet towards mediocrity has been such that they go into the quarter-finals as overwhelming underdogs against Bayern Munich and hold little hope of keeping the score respectable, let alone upsetting the odds – and it is easy to see why.
|Unbeatable Bayern versus record-breakingly bad United
While the Red Devils' struggles have prompted a fly-past protest against beleaguered boss David Moyes, the Bavarians have effortlessly swept away all before them to be crowned Bundesliga champions with seven games remaining. It is the earliest any side has won the division, and Pep Guardiola's men remain on course to finish the domestic season unbeaten.
Their current 2.9 goals per game average would take them to 99 for the season, two shy of the long-standing, and still assailable, 101-goal haul in the 1971-72 season that remains a Bundesliga scoring record – though this season's Bayern already boast a better goal difference (+66) than the side that won the title in such spectacular fashion 42 years ago (+63).
If die Roten, unbeaten in 53 games, can win five of their remaining six league matches, they will also better the record 29 wins in a single season they posted last year, while 14 more points would see them trump the record points haul they also posted last term.
United, meanwhile, will finish outside the top four for the first time in the Premier League era. They have picked up as many points at home as Norwich City (24 – almost half as many as Chelsea), scored as many home goals as Stoke and West Ham (22 compared to Bayern's 42 in two fewer games), and been beaten six times at Old Trafford this season – the most in a single season since the Premier League began.
Their respective records in so-called 'big games' stand miles apart, too, though it should be noted that the Premier League is more competitive at the top end than the Bundesliga. Bayern have won 10 of 11 games against the top seven, scoring 33 times, while United have won one of 11, netting just five times. Additionally, Bayern's longest winning streak stands at 19 games compared to four for United.
|Individual battles: Bayern's right flank against Buttner
United fans will need no reminding of the havoc Arjen Robben can cause; it was his spectacular volley that knocked them out of the Champions League in the 2009-10 season. And, since that goal, the Dutchman has only become deadlier, marrying his frightening pace and explosive left foot with renewed work rate and a greater awareness of his responsibilities within the team.
More problematic still is that United must face this threat without first-choice left-back Patrice Evra. Instead Alexander Buttner, who has made just three starts in the Premier League this season, will be tasked with containing his compatriot in what stands out as the most one-sided of numerous individual mismatches across the pitch. “It's going to be a tough day,” remarked the full-back. You can say that again.
The former Vitesse defender, the epitome of United's neglectful approach to squad building in recent years, is plainly out of his depth. In two years at Old Trafford he has collected a measly four clean sheets (and two of those were against Reading and Wigan, who are no longer in the top flight), he has never been trusted in big matches, is more reckless than the man he will deputise for (conceding fouls twice as often) and does not possess the attacking venom to push Robben back.
On top of that, if Guardiola decides to use Philipp Lahm at right-back, as he has done in recent Champions League matches, then Buttner will have to deal with his surging, overlapping runs. The Bayern skipper has created 29 chances in the Bundesliga – only two United players have mustered more – and was decisive against Arsenal both this year and last. The 30-year-old's sniping runs in unison with Robben's trickery will test Buttner to breaking point. Even if Rafinha starts on the right it will be no easier; the Brazilian has created 30 chances in the league this season.
|Midfield contest: Bayern's artisans against United's cloggers
Beginning with Jupp Heynckes and improving even further under Guardiola, Bayern have established themselves as the supreme pass masters in world football. They obliterated the former holders of that crown, Barcelona, last season, and this year boast the highest average possession and pass success, 71.4 per cent and 88.8% respectively, in Europe's top five leagues.
Of the 10 most proficient passers that might take to the field on Tuesday, just one, Michael Carrick, will be in a United shirt – though seven Bayern players have averaged more passes than the Englishman this season, who may be forced to deputise in defence due to injuries.
The Bavarians suffocate with possession and, in the Champions League this season, have played more final third passes (2007) and boast higher final-third passing accuracy (83.5%) than any other team. United, meanwhile, have played fewer than half as many passes in the final third (931) and with just 66.4% accuracy – that is the 22nd worst and lower than sides such as FC Copenhagen and Viktoria Plzen.
The problem for United is that, beyond Carrick, they have virtually no players capable of imposing themselves on the ball and struggle to disrupt opponents. In the group stage against Shakhtar Donetsk, for example, United allowed both Olexandr Kucher and Darijo Srna to play over 100 passes against them.
Thus, Bayern's collection of world-class players could have a field day – especially with the reactive and negative Moyes likely to set-up his side to play deep and merely absorb pressure, rather than contest possession – and Toni Kroos, a long-term target of United, will have his eyes set on recording even more passes than the incredible 152 he managed against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
|The genius of Guardiola against the mediocrity of Moyes|
“It's in the drawer and long may it stay in the drawer,” said United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward of the identity of Sir Alex Ferguson's successor several months before the Scot would unexpectedly announce his retirement. It seems inconceivable now that Moyes, not Guardiola (still on sabbatical then), should have been placed at the top of that shortlist.
While the Scot has just two honours to his name, a Second Division title with Preston North End some 14 years ago and this season's Community Shield, his Catalan counterpart has amassed 18 trophies, including four league titles and two Champions League crowns. In fact, success in this season's competition would make Guardiola only the second manager after Liverpool boss Bob Paisley to win the European Cup three times.
Despite Guardiola being seven years younger than Moyes, the gulf in experience between the two is startling. The latter is taking charge of just his third knock-out match in the Champions League while the former is preparing for his 29th. Guardiola has an average league placing of 1.2, never finishing below second place, while Moyes' is 7.5, never finishing higher than fourth.
Astonishingly, Guardiola has only lost seven home games in all competitions since May 2009, while Moyes has lost as many this season alone. In total, the Scot has lost 13 times this term, but you have to go back 179 games to the semi-final defeat to Inter at San Siro in 2010 to find 13 defeats for Guardiola.
On top of all that, the Spanish boss' incredible haul of titles has come playing the most consistently brilliant football of any team in Europe. He doesn't just deal in winning football, but beautiful football, with style of play as important as the end result. His sumptuous tiki-taka brand stands in stark contrast to the pragmatism of Moyes, who is more concerned with merely trying to stop the other team than cultivating an aesthetically pleasing identity.
In every conceivable way Tuesday's match is a contest between two side's at opposite ends of the spectrum – one at the very summit of world football, the other in freefall – and as United fans gear up for the realistic possibility that this is their final Champions League night at Old Trafford for the next 18 months, they can expect to be presented with a parting gift they'll want to forget in a hurry.