On the face of it, there is no way Manchester United can succeed against Bayern Munich. If it were a boxing match and the most likely outcome ensued, it would probably lead to the sport being banned. If you want to get a DVD of the performance in the future, you'll have to eschew the club shop and seek out your local snuff film purveyor. It is akin to Audley Harrison vs. David Haye, except if in the third round, the referee had said to the former, "And where do you think you're going? A fight lasts twelve rounds and no less." It would be sick, barbaric and lead to unspeakable horror. It would also probably be what most people wanted to see.
Unlike certain other sports, such as Cricket (I'm told), football is not a particularly enjoyable sport when one team is beating the tar out of another. There can (we hear) be a gracefulness in watching a batsman casually demolishing everybody who comes up against him, although as a colonial sport I suppose you have to believe there's honour in a much stronger side whipping a bunch of amateurs around for personal enjoyment. In boxing, there might be a few who would quietly enjoy seeing somebody beaten to near-death. But in football, usually it's just dull.
Unless, of course, the opposition is someone who is not ordinarily used to such hammerings. Someone for whom such a beating should be unthinkable. Someone more used to success, perhaps so used to it that they have become a figure of popular hatred, through a cocktail of boredom and envy. Someone like Manchester United.
The spectacle of David Moyes cast to the lions as his hapless charges suffer an absolute mauling at the hands of one of the greatest teams of all time would delight and entertain millions. The schadenfreude would be too great - perhaps the only other comparable team would be, er Bayern Munich, although the chances of a reverse walloping taking place are considerably slimmer.
Yet is a victory for United out of the question? There are, this season, teams who have shown Manchester United too much respect and suffered. Bayer Leverkusen put in a rather cowardly display twice and were duly hammered. Arsenal only managed to pick up one point from their two fixtures. Bayern may well do the same. After all, they were pretty easy-going against Arsenal - they simply didn't look too bothered, and cruised for most of the game. Could they do the same against United and be made to pay?
Well, the obvious retort is that Bayern did exactly the same thing last year before walloping Juventus and Barcelona in their next games. There was a clear difference however - they were only really complacent in the second leg last year, rather than both this year. The problem with that is that despite being lazier this time around, they actually won by a bigger margin, against a better side.
Yet there is a difference between Arsenal and Manchester United too. When the teamsheets were announced against Liverpool, United's lineup was as follows:
De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney, Van Persie.
There were, at this point, two thoughts felt by the majority of United fans. The first was "thank goodness, he's picked the right team. I mean, it should still be a hard game but at least we can be confident we're not going to lose 3-0 or anything." And the second was: good god, has this collection of players really been that utterly dreadful? For on paper, United were the better side.
It was a reminder of how wrong the world looks to United followers at the moment. Liverpool surely only really had one-and-a-half world-class talents in Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Yet there were United with Rooney, RVP, Mata, Rafael, De Gea and Vidic. And as for players who weren't really quite good enough, well, yes. United had Carrick, and Evra and perhaps Vidic was not the player he was. But still, Liverpool had Henderson, Allen, Skrtel, Flanagan. Mignolet. And 2014's Steven Gerrard. Could a rabble like that really win a title while United foundered in mid-table?
Time will tell the answer to that, but it's also easy to see why United were holding out on the vague hope of fluking the Champions League or suddenly drastically improving - they do have phenomenally good players who are playing well beneath themselves. They've been waiting all season to suddenly turn up and thrash the living daylights out of some unsuspecting team, but it hasn't come to pass, and it's never truly looked likely to either.
Maybe their players really have declined. Maybe Alex Ferguson really was that great. Maybe David Moyes really is this bad. Nobody knows for sure, and indeed we may never know. Pretty much everything is against them, and although we know the familiar platitudes about cornered beasts, United surely haven't been bigger underdogs in a game for a very long time indeed. Any sort of fight put up at all by Moyes' men could well result in a fascinating spectacle, but whether we get a competitive game or not, we may well see a rare sight in football: the enthralling thrashing. United fans in despair might content themselves with the fact that even when they're terrible, they're still the biggest draw.