Robin van Persie fired a precious hat-trick as both he and Manchester United showed signs of life to beat Olympiakos 3-0 at Old Trafford and dramatically claim their place in the Champions League quarterfinals, 3-2 on aggregate.
After a 2-0 defeat in the first leg and an equally insipid 3-0 reverse at home to rivals Liverpool at the weekend, David Moyes needed a performance from his side like never before. And that’s exactly what he got with United operating with a ferocious determination and purpose from the off.
For the biggest night of his managerial career, Moyes turned to a 40-year-old midfielder whom he has had to deny speculation of being at odds with in recent days. And Ryan Giggs was instrumental in both first-half goals, first when Van Persie was bundled down in the box and slotted home the resultant spot-kick and then right before the interval when the veteran Welshman’s fine ball set-up Rooney to find Van Persie who made the scores level on aggregate. Some poor goalkeeping then allowed Van Persie’s free-kick to find the net just after the break to put United in front for the first time in the tie.
The goal was a reminder that although United had been much improved the quality of opposition was such that they should never have been in such a position in the first place. All three goals owed much to poor defending from the Greek champions. And, despite the scoreline, it was still far from a comfortable night for Moyes. A major debt is owed to David de Gea, who produced a stunning double stop to deny Olympiakos getting an away goal that would have left United needing four.
After a nervy conclusion, United and their manager survived for another day, but this has to be only the start of much more to come.
While the team has toiled on the pitch throughout the season, the Old Trafford crowd has been the one thing deserving of credit. And they were in incredible voice on what they hoped would be a famous European night. The team began as if inspired by the raucous home support. The intensity that had been so synonymous with the team under Sir Alex Ferguson but had been so lacking under his successor was suddenly present once more.
There were early signs of Rooney and Van Persie linking up, too. The latter just failed to get onto the former’s cross in the early going. But while they were flying forward with all-guns blazing, there was little control about United’s play. With the pedestrian duo of Giggs and Michael Carrick left isolated in the middle, Olympiakos’s Giannis Maniatis and Delvin Ndinga ensured their team had plenty of the ball. And far from sitting back and closing their eyes waiting for the relief of the final whistle, the Greek visitors showed plenty of desire to get forward.
They were particularly dangerous going down United’s left, where Patrice Evra was caught upfield on more than one occasion. It was that side from where the game’s first clear chance arose. Scorer in the first leg Joel Campbell easily went past Phil Jones down the left of the box, but his pull-back was just behind Hernan Perez, who still should have done better than lift it over the bar.
Still, United continued to pour forward. Giggs was showing the quality he can still produce on the ball and why it was such a mystery that he has been exiled from the side of late. A fine cross from deep allowed Rooney to rise at the near post but his downward header come back off the foot of the post.
Minutes later Giggs was again involved as United got took a crucial first step back into the tie. His long pass was right onto the chest of Van Persie in the box and Jose Holebas barged into the back of the United striker with obscene clumsiness to give the hosts the chance to score from the spot. Van Persie stepped up and produced a perfect penalty to raise the decibel level inside Old Trafford even higher.
Roberto then had to tip over a header from Evra while Olympiakos survived another penalty appeal as Antonio Valencia was bundled down. But it required two sensational saves from De Gea to keep United’s fight back on track. Again it was down their right that Olympiakos prospered. From Perez’s cross, first De Gea blocked away David Fuster’s header and then reacted superbly to get back up and keep out Chori Dominguez’s follow-up effort with his right leg.
United would have settled heading into the interval a goal to the good, but they garnered the perfect boost heading back to the dressing rooms. In first-half injury time another delightful pass from deep by Giggs found Rooney on the right. Having got the benefit of a touch off a defender, Rooney crossed low into the box and Van Persie angled his left foot with precision to direct it into the bottom corner.
The spring in Moyes’s step as he made for a team talk that had just been made so much simpler spoke volumes about the weight lifted off his shoulders. And things got even better just six minutes after the restart. With a free-kick just right of center, Rooney ran over it and Van Persie curled it low over the wall to Roberto’s right but the Olympiakos keeper had taken a slight step the other way and was caught horribly leaden-footed as the ball flew past him.
Having got the goal that put them ahead in the tie, United dangerously began to drop off. Instead of proactively trying to take the sting out of the game, the hosts were sitting back and inviting Olympiakos onto them. The nervousness on the pitch was being matched by that in the stands. Two strikes from Dominguez had hearts in mouths throughout the Theatre of Dreams, first as Van Persie’s head deflected the Argentine’s free-kick just wide and then when De Gea had to again be alert to block a deflected shot.
Once the weak link in the United side, the Spaniard looked the most assured man on the field in the closing stages and played a huge part in his side progressing after a night to remember.