This was the kind of European night at Old Trafford that David Moyes will once have thought came as standard with his new job: the good players playing well, the very top ones deciding the game. When Sir Alex Ferguson passed him the keys to the kingdom last summer it was nights under the lights in Europe’s elite that were among the most precious parts of Moyes’ greatest inheritance.
This was indeed a great Old Trafford night, but chiefly because the alternative was, from Moyes’ point of view, so completely and utterly unthinkable.
Stumble against Olympiakos, as poor a team as one is likely to see in the last eight of the Champions League, and the future was grim for Moyes. It was a night when you could feel the surges of tension and relief all around the stadium, from the directors’ box to the Stretford End and truly the place never calmed down until the final whistle, before which a single goal for Olympiakos was enough for them to win the tie.
Give them their due, they are in the draw for the Champions Leagues quarter-finals on Friday with Chelsea, the only other English side still in the competition. But United once shot down the very best in Europe in this stadium. This was a victory over Olympiakos.
An Olympiakos team who, in the best traditions of a club that have not won in England in 12 attempts in European competition, lost their nerve. Yes, there was a hat-trick for Robin Van Persie and an excellent performance in goal from David De Gea but when the third went in, United fell further and further back, inviting their modest opposition to attack and giving their supporters the most acutely uncomfortable end to their evening.
At last a break in the clouds for Moyes but even he was not proclaiming that this was a watershed moment in terms of the season. In the final tense moments of injury-time Van Persie was caught with a knee to his thigh that necessitated his removal on a stretcher. The early bulletins are that there is no serious damage after a blow to the back of his knee, Moyes said, although it would be in keeping with his luck if he was to lose his Dutch striker for a while.
For now it was enough that catastrophe has been averted. Moyes has broken the recent slump. In his team on the night, back came Ryan Giggs, a big influence in midfield, as well as Rio Ferdinand and Danny Welbeck, all peripheral figures of late in this faltering new era. No-one was kidding themselves that the United manager had been saving them for this occasion. He turned to them with Nemanja Vidic injured and Juan Mata ineligible. And because the alternative was not working.
It was a productive first half for United who scored their second with almost the last kick before the break to bring the tie level. But if you were looking for a pivotal moment then it came in the 40th minute when, with United already a goal up, Olympiakos had two chances to score an away goal that would have changed the dynamic of the tie.
It started with Giggs being passed around in the midfield and Hernan Perez breaking down the right wing. His cross was met by David Fuster whose first header was saved by De Gea with his feet before the goalkeeper picked himself up and managed to save the follow-up from Alejandro Dominguez, which looked even more of a certainty to end up in the United net than the first effort.
Had either gone in, it might have convinced some of the less confident souls in the United team that this was not going to be their night. At that point it would have left them requiring three more to win the tie. Instead, De Gea reacted brilliantly and within five minutes of his double-save, the tie was level.
While Giggs struggled at times with the pace in midfield, it was him who picked out the best passes. First to Welbeck in the fifth minute when the United winger was brought down by Kostas Manolas who just marginally escaped the dismissal for the denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Antonio Valencia was a strong runner down the right all half, even if his decisions once he gained the crucial territory left something to be desired. He was encumbered with a cut to his face in the ninth minute – the result of a clash of heads with Joel Campbell – that as good as shut his left eye. Moyes told Ashley Young to warm up but Valencia soldiered on.
There was another scare when Perez struck the ball over the bar on 15 minutes when offered a presentable chance. Wayne Rooney’s header was pushed wide by the goalkeeper Roberto before finally the breakthrough came. Giggs’ ball found Van Persie in the right channel of the Olympiakos area and he was shoved over from behind by Jose Holebas. The penalty was dispatched by Van Persie, despite the best efforts of Roberto to psyche him out in the proceedings moments.
There was one further penalty appeal for Valencia turned down in the 41st minute before Van Persie struck again. Giggs’ ball to Rooney on the right was drilled in at the second attempt to be guided past Roberto by the Dutchman’s left foot.
That same left foot dispatched the third for United, a hat-trick for Van Persie within 51 minutes. Their appetite to attack undimmed, United started the second half in pursuit of the third goal and control of the tie and it came soon. It was Welbeck’s hard work and ingenuity that won a free-kick a good distance out, to the right side of the Olympiakos goal. Rooney and Van Persie stood over it, but there looked to be only one serious candidate.
As it turned out Van Persie’s strike was by no means perfect – rather too close to Roberto for that - but it came over the wall quick enough to wrong-foot the Spanish goalkeeper and give United the lead in the tie. The question then for United was how they were going to navigate the best part of 40 minutes to see out the game.
Extremely nervously, was the answer. Moyes sent substitute after substitute out to warm-up but none came on, until Young replaced Valencia, with his one functioning eye, on 77 minutes. The right-back Leandro Salino troubled Patrice Evra at times, creating the chance on 66 minutes from which Fuster forced a save out of De Gea.
A better team than Olympiakos, which is what awaits United in the next round, would have broken through the home team and scored the goal that won the tie. But give Moyes this night at least. Goodness knows, his luck alone has been bad enough. They reconvene at Old Trafford on Tuesday for Manchester City when life on the edge continues for United.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Carrick, Giggs; Valencia, Rooney, Welbeck; Van Persie.
Subs: Young/Valencia 77, Welbeck/Fletcher 82, Fellaini/Van Persie 90
Olympiakos (4-2-3-1): Roberto; Salino, Manolas, Marcano, Holebas; N’Dinga, Maniatis; Perez, Dominguez, Fuster; Campbell.
Subs: Valdez/Perez 57, Machado/Salino 75, Vergos/Fuster 82
Man of the match: Van Persie
Booked: Manchester United Carrick, Evra, Ferdinand Olympiakos Manolas, Dominguez, Salino, Marcano
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