Robin van Persie eases pressure on David Moyes
Dutch striker scores hat-trick against Olympiakos as United book quarter-final berth
Manchester United 3 Olympiakos 0
(United win 3-2 on aggregate)
It was a night that began with wild stories of Manchester United supporters planning to tear down the “Chosen One” banner and finished with David Moyes saluting the crowd in a new position of strength. His team had finally remembered what is expected of them inside this stadium and, in the process, they reminded everyone at Old Trafford what a special place this can be, under the floodlights, on the big occasions.
They were great scenes of jubilation at the end and it feels like nitpicking to point out that the victory songs did not extend to serenading Moyes. In every other respect, this was the finest moment of his difficult, sometimes harrowing, first eight months as Alex Ferguson’s successor, and it may just have kept him in a job.
Robin van Persie certainly chose a good moment to rediscover his best form. If United had gone out of this competition it would have been the earliest they had surrendered any chance of silverware for a quarter of a century. The Glazer family were on one of their occasional visits and it was difficult not to fear for Moyes. Instead they played like the old United. Van Persie put them on the way with a penalty after 24 minutes. His second goal arrived just before half-time and the tie had been turned completely upside down when he made it 3-0 on the night with a free-kick seven minutes into the second half.
Yet this was a collective effort.
Antonio Valencia summed up their attitude. The black eye he collected in an early clash of heads with Joel Campbell would have been ugly enough to end many boxing contests. Yet he played as though oblivious to the ugly swelling that was almost closing his eye. More than anything, this was a night when Ryan Giggs reminded Old Trafford of his enduring ability. He had not started a game since January 28th and United’s longest-serving player looked like he wanted to make up for lost time in those opening stages. His refinement on the ball was a part of both the first-half goals and another of his weighted passes finished with Wayne Rooney’s header flicking off goalkeeper Roberto’s glove and skimming off the post.
At 40, with silver flecks in his hair, Giggs can be over-run sometimes. Yet Moyes was right to suspect this was an occasion for the old fellow. United have missed his intelligence on the ball and steady assurance.
There was great urgency about United in that first half. The noise inside Old Trafford was the loudest this season and Moyes’s players seemed to have shed the inhibitions that have dragged them down.
There were still moments when Olympiakos counter-attacked at speed and a sudden, damp silence fell over the stadium. Campbell’s speed created the first opportunity of the night, eluding Phil Jones only for Hernán Pérez to put the cutback over the crossbar. Even more dramatically, David de Gea produced a brilliant double save, both times with his feet, to keep out David Fuster and Alejandro Domínguez after Pérez had strode clear of Evra when the score was 1-0
Yet there was a naivety about the team from Athens. What has to be remembered here is that Olympiakos had lost all 11 of their previous visits to England, conceding 34 goals in the process. Their openness encouraged United and, when it came to the penalty, the left-back, José Holebas, really could have avoided bumping into the back of Van Persie, as the striker took down Giggs’s cross-field pass.
The defending was pretty generous for the second goal as well, just as the public announcer was informing the crowd of the added minutes before half-time. Giggs started it, picking out Rooney on the inside-right channel. Rooney’s on-field understanding with Van Persie has been open to scrutiny recently but not on this occasion, his low centre was measured perfectly and Van Persie was moving in to side-foot his shot past the exposed Roberto.
In 45 minutes, the entire complexion of the match had changed and United quickly set about re-establishing the pattern of dominance after the break. “Attack, attack, attack,” was the order from the Stretford End. Then the moment when they were ahead, on aggregate, for the first time. Danny Welbeck was fouled 25 yards out. Van Persie sized up his shot, strode forward and put the ball through a flimsy wall to deceive the wrong-footed Roberto. After that, the hope seemed to drain from Olympiakos. Yet there was always the danger that one goal would suddenly swing the game back in their favour. Dominguez carried their best hopes and, just like the first leg, Campbell’s fast, direct running demonstrated that the young striker, on loan from Arsenal, should have a fine future.
But United stubbornly held out. Jones, despite his early aberration, had one of his best games for a long time. De Gea was flawless and Rio Ferdinand rolled back the years. Moyes, in one night, had gone from crisis to the last eight of the Champions League.