Manchester United will take their usual place at the top table of European football in the Champions League quarter-finals draw this morning but, like an impoverished lord at a society dinner, they will hope no-one notices their moth-eaten garments.
United will be among familiar faces when they go into the pot with defending champions Bayern Munich and the rest of Europe’s elite in the shape of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Paris St Germain.
But, unlike other seasons in the past two decades when they have swaggered in with all the confidence of either champions or strong favourites, this season they are simply relieved to be just a part of the proceedings.
And, of course, the other guests know all too well that United are turning up as a team in transition with new manager David Moyes enduring a tough baptism after following the retired Sir Alex Ferguson into the job.
Wednesday’s spirited 3-0 Last 16 second-leg victory over Olympiakos gave United a 3-2 aggregate win over the Greek champions and a place in the last eight for the first time since 2011, which was also the last time they reached the final.
The win, thanks to a first Champions League hat-trick from Dutchman Robin van Persie, relieved some of the pressure that has been building on Moyes.He has come under increasing criticism from pundits and fans alike following a series of poor results which has left them seventh in the Premier League table, a distant 18 points behind leaders Chelsea.
Moyes said before Wednesday’s win he felt his job was safe and that the board were fully supportive of him, and after steering United into the last eight, he was relishing the challenge ahead but would not say this was a turning point.
He told reporters: “It was a magnificent team performance. I don’t want to come out and say, ‘this is the moment’, but I hope it is. We have been asked a similar question before and we have not shown it. This is a work in progress and it will take time to get it as we really want it. It is a big job.
“I have got a lot of things I want to do but the players gave the crowd something after we lost to Liverpool (3-0 at home on Sunday) and we are delighted to see Manchester United in the last eight of the Champions League.
“We played very well and deserved our victory. I’m not feeling any pressure from inside the club... it’s coming from you lot (the media). We know the job we have to do. It’s probably bigger than I thought when I first came to the club. And if we go into the last eight as the underdogs, that suits me fine. We can be more than a match for anyone.”
While looking towards the future, Moyes showed he still has time for the past with the recall of Ryan Giggs to orchestrate the midfield, and the 40-year-old Welshman did not let him down.
Giggs was making his 140th appearance in the competition, two shy of Raul’s all-time record, and he had a hand in two goals, and contributed a series of other telling passes as United took control.
It was also noticeable that United played with a strong and effective spine down the middle. David De Gea had an outstanding game in goal, Phil Jones was authoritative alongside a rejuvenated Rio Ferdinand at the core of the defence and Wayne Rooney showed leadership qualities in attack.
With Danny Welbeck cutting from one flank and Antonio Valencia, despite a huge swelling on his eye from an early collision, powering down the other, United looked more like the menacing Red Devils of old.
Olympiakos, who held a 2-0 advantage from the first leg, threatened at times and one goal, even when they were 3-0 down, would have been enough for them to qualify, meaning United could never truly relax.
In the end, United held firm to turn the tie around after coming from two goals down in the first leg to win on aggregate for the first time for 30 years.
The victory keeps their season alive and a route open to next season’s Champions League, but the only way that United can realistically take part in the elite competition for a 19th successive season is by winning this year’s final in Lisbon.
That, though, might just be too much of a tall order for the fading aristocrats at the moment.
l Manchester United may have made it into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but bookmakers remain unimpressed and are still happy to lay David Moyes’ side at 16-1 to lift the trophy. William Hill make holders Bayern Munich their 7-4 favourites to defend the crown; then go 7-2 Barcelona, 4-1 Real Madrid, 10-1 Paris Saint Germain, 12-1 Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, 16-1 Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United.