London – Manchester United returned to England on Wednesday to be greeted by the type of headlines not associated with the club since they were relegated from the old First Division about 40 years ago.
Their woeful display in a 2-0 defeat by Olympiakos Piraeus in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie has left them on the brink of elimination from the only competition they can still win this season.
The Daily Mail back page screamed: “Humiliated!” while The Daily Telegraph described them as “Clueless, Aimless and Hopeless”. The Guardian front page said they had a “mountain to climb” while the Daily Mirror described them as “Greek Clods”.
“Manchester United's disastrous season was lying in ruins last night after they were humiliated in Athens” said The Sun.
Manager David Moyes and his players were roundly criticised not just for the defeat but for the manner in which they lost.
Henry Winter of the Telegraph said: “This was a horrible, aimless, passionless performance from Manchester United.
“This was a display riddled with errors from the players and the manager, David Moyes.
“United were too cautious in design, clueless in possession and too generous with space, seemingly inviting Olympiakos to score. Beware Greeks exploiting gifts.”
BBC pundit Robbie Savage, who began his career at United, questioned their team spirit and desire, describing the performance as “pathetic”.
He said: “The defeat in Greece was a new low for David Moyes's team.
“Yes, the Greek champions are doing well domestically - they are 20 points clear at the top of their league and have not lost any of their 26 games - but Manchester United should not be losing 2-0 there.
“Some players let the shirt down - no question. The performance was desperately poor.
“We saw United players losing the ball without making a recovery run. They were giving the ball away constantly and not dynamic. In terms of a European performance it was pathetic.
“Were United lacking leadership, fight, team spirit? I'd say they lacked all three.”
United had their setbacks during Alex Ferguson's 27 years in charge but the negatives have far outweighed the positives since David Moyes took over from his fellow Scot this season.
Although this was their first Champions League defeat this season, the performance was typical of the poor displays that have left them 15 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea and likely to finish in their lowest position since 1991 when they were sixth.
The only United player to escape the opprobrium was Serbia defender Nemanja Vidic, who is leaving at the end of the season and may not be the only one heading out of Old Trafford.
Moyes, appointed with Ferguson's full backing last year, is unlikely to go but he has had a season to forget.
So far he has seen United lose at Old Trafford to West Bromwich Albion for the first time since 1978, Newcastle United (1972) and Everton (1992) and at home to Swansea City for the first time ever.
At the start of the year they lost three games in a row for the first time since 2001 - against Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea and Sunderland - and followed that with their first defeat by Stoke City since 1984.
Tuesday's reverse was their first defeat by a Greek side and, although they could overturn the deficit in the second leg on March 19, it is doubtful they would advance much further.
Moyes and his team have plenty of soul searching to do after this low.
“That's the worst we've played in Europe. We didn't deserve to get anything,” Moyes said.
“I'm surprised, I didn't see that level of performance coming. I take responsibility, we have to play better. The players are hurting.”
United have regressed significantly since winning the Premier League nine months ago.
The team that won that title were a long way short in quality from many of the 13 that won the league under Ferguson but were still good enough to finish 11 points clear of Manchester City.
But it wasn't just Ferguson's “genius” that secured the crown last year.
They benefitted from the signing of Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, whose goals helped tip the balance back in their favour after they lost out to City on goal difference the previous season.
City failed to progress under Roberto Mancini, who was sacked at the end of the campaign, while Arsenal did not find an adequate replacement for their Dutch striker.
Chelsea began last season well and were top until the end of October but faltered after Roberto Di Matteo was sacked and the unpopular Rafa Benitez took over, while Brendan Rodgers was still finding his feet at Liverpool.
Spurs, apart from Gareth Bale who has since left for Real Madrid in a world record transfer deal, lacked the quality to sustain their challenge.
This season City have invested wisely and played exciting attacking football under Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho has returned to Chelsea, Arsenal look rejuvenated and Rodgers' Liverpool have improved significantly.
Spurs and Everton are also ahead of United in the table.
Moyes probably needs to totally overhaul the squad, and his tactics, and return to the tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation with a diamond-shaped midfield which traditionally worked for them rather than a 4-2-3-1 that was so badly exposed in Greece. – Reuters