RVP proves he is the man for the big occasion
MAN UTD 3 - OLYMPIAKOS 0
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 – like RVP – 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 competition 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, utterly unthinkable. Stumble against Olympiakos, as poor a team as one is likely to see in the last rounds 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 would have been enough for them to win the tie.
United once shot down the very best in Europe in this stadium. This was a victory over a team that have now never won in England in 12 attempts. There was a hat-trick for Robin van Persie and an excellent display in goal from David de Gea, but when the third went in United fell back, inviting their modest opposition to attack and giving their fans a most uncomfortable end to their evening.
Give them their due, they are in the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals tomorrow with Chelsea, the only other English side still in the competition. But, in terms of the season, they are not out the woods. 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.
Ordinarily that would spell disaster but Moyes barely had time to glance in his direction as he tried to reorganise.
Back came Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Danny Welbeck into the team, peripheral figures of late in this faltering new era at United. But no one would be kidding themselves that Moyes 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 great 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 whole 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 he picked himself up and saved 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 team that it was not going to be their night. At that point it would have left them requiring three more to win the tie. But De Gea reacted brilliantly and within five minutes of his double save, the aggregate score was level.
While Giggs struggled at times with the pace in midfield, he picked out the best passes. First to Welbeck in the fifth minute when the United winger was brought down by Kostas Manolas, who marginally escaped 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 almost shut his left eye.
There was another scare when Perez struck the ball over the bar on 15 minutes when offered a presentable chance. 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 psych him out.
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 exquisite left foot.
That same foot dispatched the third, giving Van Persie a hat-trick within 51 minutes.
Their appetite to attack undimmed, they had started the second half in pursuit of the third goal and control of the tie. It was Welbeck's hard work and ingenuity that won a free-kick a good distance out, to the right side of goal. Rooney and Van Persie stood over it, but there looked to be only one serious candidate.
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 keeper and give United the lead in the tie. The question then 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 Ashley 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 would have broken through 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.