Van Persie hat-trick resurrects season for United
Manchester United 3 Olympiakos 0 (United win 3-2 on agg)
Robin van Persie resurrected Manchester United's season with a majestic hat-trick, guiding United into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, although the Dutchman's participation could be in doubt after he suffered an injury late on here and departed on a stretcher.
If Van Persie will take the headlines, special mention on a special United night should be made for David De Gea, who made a series of saves to deny Olympiakos the away goal that would have stunned Moyes' side. So all the talk of Moyes being on the brink was correct; he was just on the brink of the quarter-finals after a performance of sustained commitment by his players.
Two goals to the good at the break, and level on aggregate, an impassioned Old Trafford had begun to believe. This had been the sort of urgent, pacy display the United fans had been craving, a 45 minutes with far more width than usually under Moyes. Antonio Valencia flew down the right, Danny Welbeck was tireless on the left, often moving inside to catch out Olympiakos's uncertain defence. Van Persie took his goals well, intensifying the sense of belief as United emerged after the break.
There had actually been a hint of defeatism in Moyes' programme plea to fans about "the importance of making time-wasting noticeable to the officials."
Of greater importance was that Moyes' players were setting a more upbeat tempo. It hardly spoke much for his £27.5m investment in Marouane Fellaini that Moyes replaced the Belgian midfielder with a 40-year-old who played the two best passes of the first half. Ryan Giggs, starting for the third time in 15 games, began alongside Michael Carrick and brought composure and occasional defence-splitting passes. The ageless Welshman had played only 81 minutes since January 7 but was fit, hungry and incredibly influential.
Moyes had needed leaders like Giggs. Moyes had known the high stakes involved, particularly after Sunday's humbling here by Liverpool. United's manager told fans he "shared their pain". He faced questions about his future before the match.
He desperately 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, being too strong for Delvin N'Dinga, the Congolese midfielder on loan from Monaco. It set the tone. United fans played their part, urging the team on. The players responded. Welbeck sprinted through, bringing United fans to their feet, soon screaming for a red card after he was brought down by Kostas Manolas. There was a covering defender. Rooney's free-kick came to nothing but the nerves were dispelled, replaced by optimism.
United were creating chances, raising their tempo, responding to the Stretford End chants of "attack, attack, attack". Rooney made good ground down the right, whipping the ball in towards Van Persie, who slid in ahead of Ivan Marcano but Roberto claimed.
This was more like the United of old, chasing the game with desire and width and speed. And technique. Giggs played a 1-2 with Evra and then lifted the ball into Rooney, whose flicked header beat Roberto but not the post. There were still anxious moments to survive, not least when Hernan Perez shot over after Joel Campbell had raced past Phil Jones after 16 minutes.
Backed passionately, unquestioningly by the United faithful, the players began to repay such loud loyalty after 25 minutes. Giggs' sumptuous pass dropped perfectly for Van Persie in the box. As the Dutchman went to control the ball he was shoved in the back by Jose Holebas.
It was a clear penalty, although referee Bjorn Kuipers initially appeared hesitant until consulting his assistants. After Kuipers pointed to the spot, Van Persie calmly took control of the situation, placing the ball down and then thumping it past Roberto.
Olympiakos fans fell quiet. United supporters still chanted "attack, attack, attack," yet they still endured more scares, particularly when Alejandro Dominguez was raiding from midfield, seeing one of his shots blocked by Rooney.
Van Persie's goal had spread hope, tholugh. There was now 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 Dominguez, who angled a low shot but again De Gea was masterful, saving with his feet, conjuring up memories of Peter Schmeichel.
On the cusp of half-time, United had parity 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, in keeping with his team's mood of men on a mission. They soon moved ahead on aggregate.
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 space to attack.
Jones was also shaky at times, requiring the calming figure of Rio Ferdinand to clear up. Ferdinand was playing only because Nemanja Vidic suffered a groin injury in training. Fortunately for United, they had De Gea, who made another good save from Fuster.
United were sitting too deep. Moyes waved them upfield. So did thousands of fans. Rooney helped out, tracking back, effectively now a full-time midfielder, leaving Van Persie slightly isolated.
Moyes' substitutions have been questioned this season. He had to make these count, to reclaim control. Valencia was replaced by Ashley Young and then Welbeck by Darren Fletcher. United did break out. Rooney went down the left, then Evra followed.
Fletcher stroked the ball into Rooney, whose right-footed shot curled wide. Rooney was everywhere, covering back to thwart Dominguez. Olympiakos refused to give up the chase for the away goal that would kill United off. Jones headed clear. De Gea punched clear. 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.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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