Posted by News Express | 20 March 2014 | 2,944 times
Finally, Manchester United played like Fergie’s boys again. Finally, with their backs to the wall in Europe, United rallied and gave their most powerful performance under David Moyes, playing with all the old pace, urgency and fearlessness that was their calling card under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Robin van Persie’s hat-trick guaranteed him possession of the headlines as well as the match-ball. Wayne Rooney’s work-rate, whether defending or attacking, was of the highest order. Danny Welbeck was tireless down the left, cutting inside, inviting fouls and enticing sweat-beads to take up permanent residence on Greek brows.
Ryan Giggs, with only 81 minutes’ action since Jan 7, delivered an hour and a half of intelligence, vision and a couple of the finest long-range passes imaginable.
Life continues at 40. On this evidence, Giggs should put aside any thoughts of retirement. He is still adding to the scrap-books rather than heading for the scrapyard. The player most associated with the Ferguson era helped define the most impressive performance of the nascent Moyes era.
The fans responded loudly to the deliveries of Giggs, the finishes of Van Persie. This was the Old Trafford of old, a place of passionate homage to the team. The Stretford End even briefly chorused their “come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s boys” plea of a song.
There were nerves. There were fans on the edge of their seats, or standing beseeching the team not to sit so deep, inviting Olympiakos on.
Fortunately, there was also the soothing presence of David de Gea. United’s angular, athletic goalkeeper made a double save in the first half that Peter Schmeichel would have been proud of.
The Spaniard made a couple more stops in the second half, as well as commanding his box with a punched clearance here, and a rising claim of a catch there, to repel Olympiakos when the Greeks hunted an away goal that would have ended United’s season, and darkened the storm-clouds around Moyes.
Now they march on in Europe, going where Manchester City and Arsenal have failed this season, going further than they managed under Ferguson last season. So all the talk of Moyes being on the brink was correct; he was just on the brink of the quarter-finals after a display of sustained commitment by his players.
He got his selection right, particularly Giggs over Marouane Fellaini. He got his tactics right, a 4-2-3-1 system with more speed and balance than when Juan Mata (ineligible for Europe) starts on the right. He got the mood right, asking the fans for noise and unquestioning support.
United need to play like this more often. They need to maintain this level of tempo and ambition against West Ham United at an inhospitable Upton Park on Saturday and then at home to City on Tuesday. This cannot yet be deemed a watershed moment for Moyes but it is a welcome start, it is a lowering of the volume of all the negative background noise.
Talk of winning the Champions League is patently over-ambitious for the side deemed the 20-1 outsider of a field comprising Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. Friday’s draw is unlikely to send United hearts soaring.
It might seem churlish to question the defence after a clean sheet but United remain vulnerable at the back. Far tougher opposing attackers lie in await, defence-wreckers of the class of Lionel Messi, Zlata Ibrahimovic, Diego Costa and Robert Lewandowski (suspended for Borussia Dortmund’s first game).
Attackers of the quality of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Neymar and Eden Hazard could target United’s full-backs, Rafael and presumably Alex Büttner as Patrice Evra is suspended for the first leg. But enough quibbles.
This was a night to celebrate a second English team in the quarter-finals, to feel relief for Moyes during a troubled first season and to admire some exceptional individual contributions.
Moyes needed United to summon up the spirit of 1984, although more Irwell than Orwell. It was 30 years ago that United overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit in Europe, recovering against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona here. United needed a Bryan Robson, a leader, someone to drive them forward as in 1984.
Giggs was there for United as so often down the years. So was Rooney, flicking a header against the post.
For United fans it was a night of endless singing but also tension, fearing an away goal. Hernan Perez shot wastefully over after Joel Campbell, the lively Costa Rican on loan from Arsenal, had raced past Phil Jones after 16 minutes.
The fans kept with the team, kept chanting “attack, attack, attack” and their loud loyalty began to be rewarded after 25 minutes. Running on to Giggs’ sumptuous pass, Van Persie was shoved in the back by Jose Holebas. After Bjorn Kuipers, Van Persie's compatriot, eventually pointed to the spot, United’s Dutch striker calmly thumped the ball past Roberto.
Belief spread. There was now even greater urgency from United.
Van Persie then curled in a corner from the right, targeting the near-post where Evra, living up to his pre-match rhetoric, attacked the ball and only Roberto’s left hand denied him.
All of Moyes’ men were playing their part, not least De Gea with that astonishing double save five minutes from the break. With Evra again out of position, Perez cut the ball back to David Fuster, whose header was pushed out brilliantly by De Gea. The ball fell to Alejandro Domínguez, who angled a low shot but again De Gea was masterful, saving with his feet.
On the cusp of half-time, United were level on aggregate. Again Giggs was the catalyst, rolling back the years, sweeping a long pass to Rooney on the right. United’s No 10 nudged the ball forward, and picked out Van Persie’s run with a perfect pass. Van Persie did the rest from close range.
Moyes was running down the touchline towards the tunnel, in keeping with his team’s mood of men on a mission. United kept up the pressure after the break, seizing the aggregate lead within seven minutes.
When Welbeck won a free-kick 20 yards out, Rooney and Van Persie both lined up to take it. Van Persie took responsibility, curling the ball over the wall and past the flat-footed Roberto.
United had 38 minutes to hold out. Their defence never exuded total confidence. Evra was occasionally caught forward or drifting inside, allowing Campbell to deliver some crosses. De Gea stood tall, denying Fuster and Rodriguez with good saves.
United did break out. Rooney curled a right-footed shot wide. Rooney was everywhere, covering back to thwart Domínguez. Phil Jones headed clear. De Gea punched clear. Van Persie sustained an injury, departing on a stretcher, although the prognosis was that it was not too serious.
As he was carried away, United fans were on the edge of their seats, their nerves shredded, their voices hoarse, singing in praise of the team, of the magnificent De Gea, and drowning out the final whistle.
•Text courtesy Daily Telegraph. Photo shows hat-trick hero, Robin van Van Persie.
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