Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich is a rich and storied fixture, with the two clubs' own idiosyncratic positions of preeminence making it one of the true glamour ties. Yet this time, it will resemble something akin to a Fifth round FA Cup match between Wrexham and Tottenham. Even when several leagues separate potential opponents, and the possibility of an upset is salivated over, you have to get some considerable distance to have the sort of "impossible dream" schtick to this upcoming
And considerable distance is something there is plenty of. Bayern are everything Manchester United aren't, seemingly being on the verge of losing their old achilles' heel of having the ability to go through a bafflingly awful season every so often. When Manchester United set down their road to destiny in 1992, Bayern finished five points above relegation having finished 2nd the previous season. When Manchester United were cantering to titles in the late Ferguson era, Bayern oscillated between hegemony and disaster or allowing some provincial no-marks to clinch the title. At last, the disease seems like it might have been passed on, and there are no prizes for guessing who the new host is.
Suggestions were abound in the press that David Moyes' tenure would be settled on the fate of his performances against Liverpool, Olympiakos and Manchester City. It appears that the turnaround at Olympiakos has bought him some time, but he may well have thrown it away in last night's tame surrender to their rivals. Every 'corner turned' seems to be a sticking plaster on a hull that is springing leaks every day, with some deeper fundamental problem remaining unaddressed and growing in menace. It seems, in other words, that he is a dead man walking.
Bayern are all that remains. A victory against them would be so unthinkable, so unexpected, and so remarkable that it may well save his job in a way that nothing else he could do from now until the end of the season might be expected to achieve. The problem with an unthinkable, unexpected, and remarkable achievement is that they are unthinkably, unexpectedly, and remarkably difficult to achieve.
It's hard to see where United are going to get any semblance of hope from. They still have many dangerous players, yes, but two of their real stars won't be taking any part due to Robin van Persie's injury and Juan Mata's ineligibility, while mostly they simply aren't performing anyway. It's a big game which they'll be able to fire themselves up for? Well, so were the games against Liverpool and Manchester City. This time there'll be no pressure? Ditto.
Oddly, some of United's best displays this season came by dishing out real shoeings to Bayer Leverkusen, doing well in the Bundesliga. But as the table shows, Bayern are several levels above that, and Bayer were one of the few teams to make the mistake of treating United like the famous football team from Manchester that has won the league title 20 times and is one of the most successful and well-supported clubs in the world, rather than the collection of can't-play-won't-play cloggers being dragged reluctantly around on the David Moyes roadshow of despair. Bayern will probably not make the same mistake.
It's tempting to think Moyes could pull off one of the great shocks, but as remarkable as it would be, there is simply no possibility of it happening. Few European ties between big clubs, whatever state one of them finds themselves in, have ever had such an air of certainty about them. The most interesting question is not who will win, but this: how on earth has a club like Manchester United gone in one season from competing with the very best to their manager having one tie to save his career, with everybody knowing that the result is already a foregone conclusion?