A timely hat-trick from Robin van Persie enabled Manchester United to come from two goals down to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals 3-2 on aggregate against Olympiakos.
Van Persie is unlikely to end up being heralded as the Mark Robins of David Moyes’ United story but his trio of strikes—a penalty, a low drive, and a free-kick—undoubtedly eased the pressure on the Scot. The Premier League side coolly overcame a traumatic 2-0 first leg loss that had seen then written off in some quarters.
United inarguably rode their luck on occasions but were probably worth their victory in the end, with Wayne Rooney and Van Persie combining to particular effect for a 3-0 triumph on the night.
However, the joy was somewhat eroded by a serious-looking knee injury suffered by Van Persie in the fraught final minutes of the contest.
Robins’ goal against Nottingham Forest in 1990 was famously credited with helping save Sir Alex Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford and, while there is still much work to do in the league, Moyes will feel some of the pressure has lifted from his shoulders.
He can feel a certain amount of pride, too—United failed to reach the last-eight of the Champions League in each of Ferguson’s last two seasons.
Afterwards, Moyes said (via The Telegraph):
We didn't play well over there but tonight we put it right.
I don't think it was a huge result for me personally, people will talk about turning points in people's careers but I know what I've got here and the club know what they've got. I feel like I'm going to be here for a long time and I've got a lot to do.
We're going to try and keep going in the competition.
The tone of the match was set almost immediately, with United posing the questions and the visitors scrambling to answer them. Moyes opted to start Ryan Giggs in midfield alongside Michael Carrick with Rooney, Van Persie and Danny Welbeck in attack, and the selection seemed to have the side both settled on the ball and dangerous pushing forward.
Some early forays saw both Kostas Manolas and Alejandro Dominguez booked inside the first 10 minutes as Welbeck and Antonio Valencia poured forward, with the latter man also picking up a horrible swollen eye following a clash of heads with Joel Campbell on the edge of the box.
The first clear chance fell to Olympiakos, however, a goal that could have further wrenched the tie from United’s grasp. It was the hero of the first leg, Campbell, who created it; the Arsenal loanee dragging the ball around Patrice Evra and cutting it back for Hernan Perez, who looked suitably embarrassed as he blazed over from eight yards.
Overlooking that chance, it had been a good start from United, and they seemed to be knocking on the door even before Rooney hit the inside of the post with a well-placed header. Soon enough they were indeed in front, although the recently re-crowned Greek champions played a part in their own downfall.
Van Persie drifted into space in the book and Giggs found him with a perfect lofted ball, enabling the Dutchman to chest it down inside the box. Caught behind his man, Jose Holebas clumsily barged into the back of Van Persie as he prepared to shoot, a clear penalty.
Van Persie himself stepped up, and duly beat Roberto’s despairing dive to further heighten an already thumping atmosphere at Old Trafford.
Before half-time they would be back on terms on aggregate, although that was not without two crucial interventions in quick succession from David de Gea. The Spaniard made two brilliant saves with his feet from David Fuster and, from the rebound, Dominguez to deny Olympiakos a potentially pivotal away goal.
Minutes later, on the stroke of half-time, United made it 2-0. Giggs laid the groundwork by finding Rooney with a brilliant through ball, and the Englishman duly squared for Van Persie to turn home with his favoured left foot.
United returned after the break imbued with confidence and conviction, and soon enough they had turned the tie completely on its head. Again, it was Van Persie who grabbed the glory—completing a hat-trick at the most important of times.
A probing Welbeck run resulted in United winning a free-kick just over 20 yards out with Van Persie taking it, finding the far corner as Roberto remained rooted to the spot.
Suddenly finding themselves as the team needing to score in order to progress, Olympiakos nearly did so immediately, as Dominguez saw his own free-kick effort deflect just narrowly wide of De Gea’s goal.
The same player—arguably Olympiakos’ star man across the two legs—then threatened again from range, just failing to keep his ambitious first-time volley from rising over the crossbar.
The visitors continued to push forward and remained threatening, with Fuster the latest to force De Gea into a smart save.
Gradually but perceptibly, United began to drop deeper—something that eventually proved their undoing against Sunderland at the same venue in the Capital One Cup semi-final earlier this season.
Olympiakos fed on the extra space and created further chances, with Dominguez forcing yet another point-blank save from De Gea before Campbell blazed over.
The visitors only needed one goal, an away goal, to turn the tie back in their favour again, the knowledge of which heightened the nerves around Old Trafford.
United did experience some late drama, but it came in the form of an injury rather than a soul-destroying goal. Van Persie, the night's hero, lay on the pitch writhing in agony after taking a strong blow to the back of his knee.
|Manchester United Player Ratings|
|David De Gea||8|
|Rafael da Silva||7|
|Robin van Persie||8|
It was not the fitting end to his night. After being stretchered off, he was replaced by Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgian arrived for five minutes of injury time, a purgatory United spent wasting precious seconds wherever possible. The tactic did its job.
The final whistle enabled Moyes to celebrate; in a tough debut campaign, this was a turnaround to savour.
"We owed ourselves a good result," Rooney told Sky Sports. "These fans, the manager, everyone.
"This is a great result and hopefully it can kick-start our season and be the start of something really special."
Giggs, arguably the man of the match, added: "We've had good performances and good results [this season] but not followed it up. That's what we've got to do now. We've just got to carry on with performances like today."
Nevertheless, United’s display across the two legs is unlikely to inspire the confidence that this European run can extend even further. Defensively, in particular, United look prone to individual errors and collective oversights, something that will surely be exploited keenly by the continental heavyweights that also remain in the competition.
They will find out who they face on Friday. Further challenges may await, and the news around Van Persie may not be good, but for now Moyes and United can savour a rare success.
|Olympiakos Player Ratings|
Manchester United visit West Ham in the Premier League on Saturday, before hosting Manchester City in a huge derby encounter at Old Trafford in seven days' time. Olympiakos, who have already won their domestic title, next face Ergotelis away on Sunday.
The draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League takes place on Friday, March 21.