Moyes under fire, Drogba returns to Chelsea, more CL storylines

Monday March 17th, 2014

David Moyes' detractors continue to get louder after Manchester United's 3-0 loss to Liverpool on Sunday.
Cal Sport Media

There were few surprises in last week's Champions League round of 16 ties but this week's games promise much more: Will Manchester United be able to overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat at Old Trafford? Will Didier Drogba add to Jose Mourinho's problems on his Chelsea return? How good is Real Madrid?

Here are some of the storylines to look out for this week:

Pressure mounts on Moyes for Olympiakos return

At what point does a club owner hold up his hands and say, "Enough is enough?" That is the question that the Glazer family might be wondering in spite of the in-house line coming from Manchester United that David Moyes' six-year contract means just that, and he will be given time, and, more crucially, a full summer transfer window, to try and turn things around.

But for every low point there has been for United this season -- and there have been plenty, from the December home defeats to Everton and Newcastle to back-to-back cup losses to Swansea and Sunderland, the home draw against Fulham, the first-leg 2-0 loss to Olympiakos and Sunday's 3-0 home thrashing by Liverpool -- there has been the presumption that things will eventually get better; that with the players it has, United's results will improve.

But why? A poor run of form is just that, and a coach who cannot get the best out of his players, nor form what appears to be a coherent strategy with those he has, just might not be the right man for the job. It was noted in this space a couple of months ago that there was no guarantee that time and the return to fitness of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney would improve results, and so it has proved. United is as low as at any point this season, and Old Trafford is no longer the daunting venue it once was: United has only won 12 of its 21 games there this season.

What does this mean for newly crowned Greek champion Olympiakos, whose first-leg gameplan played out to perfection (though was helped by a bizarre United display)? Simply that there is nothing to fear and that an away goal is there for the taking. Oh, and for anyone thinking that things could not worse for United if it were to be knocked out of Europe by an Olympiakos side so convinced it would not progress that it cashed in on top scorer Kostas Mitroglou when it could, not so fast. United has a game against Manchester City next week.

Should Real Madrid be the Champions League favorite?

We won't find out the answer this week, as the team faces Schalke with a robust 6-1 first-leg advantage and will surely rest some key players ahead of this weekend's 'El Clasico,' with the club already four points clear of Barcelona and having a clear chance of knocking its rival out of the title race.

But some of the figures suggest that it is Real Madrid, and not Bayern Munich, who should be the Champions League favorite this season. Madrid is unbeaten in all competitions in 30 games -- Bayern, despite its 50-match league unbeaten run, lost to Manchester City 15 games ago -- while since the turn of the year, Madrid's record reads: Played 18; won 16, drawn two; scored 45 and conceded six.

It may be B-B-C -- Benzema, Bale and Cristiano -- that gets all the headlines, but coach Carlo Ancelotti has revitalized the midfield by revising Angel di Maria's Argentina role in a central three. He has even shown another side to center back Pepe, who is (mostly) no longer playing the role he did under Jose Mourinho as the coach's on-pitch embodiment of belligerence.

We might not read too much into Tuesday's result, but Madrid is a team to fear in this season's competition.

WILSON: Bayern's milestone win overshadowed by Hoeness saga

Will Zenit rise again?

Just like the good referee you don't notice, Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg is about to wake up to life without Luciano Spalletti, the Italian coach who left his position in the wake of the first leg 4-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. The two clubs' differing philosophies was all too apparent in the game's build-up: Dortmund buys low and sells high, while Zenit... well, Nikita Belogolovtsev reported in Slon this week that the club brings in €80 million per year and spends around €250 million per year.

The moment it all went wrong for the team that Russia wanted to be its public face -- there was a time when then-president Medvedev and his wife would go to its matches -- was when it tried to make the step up into elite status. In September 2012, it spent €100 million on Hulk and Axel Witsel, reportedly paying them an annual €7 million and €4 million respectively.

That upset the Russians in the squad, notably captain Igor Denisov, whose fallouts with Spalletti became frequent. "As with the Sochi Olympics, the gigantic amount spent was more a demonstration of strength rather than based on actual usefulness," wrote Belogolovtsev.

It was not dissimilar to when Lyon gambled the house on breaking into top-club status in 2010, spending €23 million on Yoann Gourcuff to help out. That did not work either, and Lyon has missed out on the group stage in the last two years. The two questions that arise from Zenit's latest wobble are: When we will next see it in the knockout stage? And which club will be brave enough to employ Spalletti, a coach known for playing attacking football and working on a clear and coherent strategy to get the best out of his players?

There are one or two in the Premier League that might have noted his availability.

The Drogba return finally happens

Has Didier Drogba still not played this match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge yet? The game that seems to have been spoken about for the three months since the draw was made is finally upon us. Drogba can get the long-awaited, and much-deserved, ovation from the home fans for scoring two of the most important goals in the club's history (the last-minute equalizer against Bayern Munich and the shootout winning penalty that won its Champions League title; though there is a [depressing] argument that Jesper Gronkjaer's winner in the May 2003 triumph over Liverpool, which clinched fourth spot for Chelsea and encouraged Roman Abramovich to invest in the club, is more important).

While Drogba was fairly quiet in the first leg -- though his dangerous header forced the corner from which Galatasaray scored -- his habit of rising to the big occasion as well as his current run of form, which is better in terms of goals-per-game than it was in his final season at Chelsea, ensure that this might not be a comfortable fixture for the host. Chelsea is still tipped to progress, but Drogba won't disappear quietly.

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