In a game that may unfortunately prove to be a season highlight, Moyes’ men overturned a two goal first leg deficit to dump the Greek champions out of Europe and progress to the quarter-final stage with a convincing-turned-nervy victory. A Van Persie hat trick, with two goals before half-time added to by a well struck (if rather fortuitous) free-kick after the break sealed what was at times an encouraging performance from United.
It is nights like Wednesday that all associated with the club tend to come alive. The fans once more were magnificent (as they had been against Liverpool), United’s experienced players stepped up and Moyes’ team selection was certainly vindicated. While the final few minutes were made nervy by the reds dropping far too deep, the result was ultimately a just one. Here are five things we learned from another great European night at Old Trafford.
1. David de Gea – cometh the man
He arrived a young fluffy faced Spaniard with undoubted talent but a fragile frame. However, over the last 18 months David de Gea has matured into one of the finest goalkeepers in the Premier League and demonstrations of his increased presence and maturity were pertinently displayed once more on Wednesday night.
It has often been said that a truly top class goalkeeper’s biggest strength is concentration. The men with the gloves playing at the very best teams often have little to do for much of a game but are required to maintain the highest standards should they be called into action. Against Olympiakos, de Gea was calm, confident and assured and made vital stops at crucial times.
Without an away goal in Greece, conceding on home soil would have left an uphill task for the reds but it is plain to see now that they have a top class stopper to rely on if necessary. A brilliant double save in the first half followed by an excellent reflex save after an unfortunate deflection once more illustrated de Gea’s outstanding, if somewhat unorthodox at times, natural talent.
In the early parts of his United career, the young Spaniard endured some difficult moments and was widely criticised. It took United far too long to replace Peter Schmeichel and so the parallels were obvious once Edwin van der Sar had stepped aside. Nevertheless, the former Atletico Madrid man has grown immeasurably both mentally and physically as his career in Manchester has progressed, and now presents the figure of a confident and assured goalkeeper capable of performing at the highest level.
After a rocky start littered with errors, an ill-timed mistake against Sunderland in the League cup remains a rare recent mistake from the boy who has grown into a man with the Red Devils. It’s hoped he will be a mainstay for years to come.
2. Ryan Giggs – still tearing you apart
In truth, there’s not much left to say about the ‘Welsh Wizard’, when he finally does decide to hang up his boots (likely circa 2032), he will go down as one of the club’s greatest ever players. The midfielder put on a vintage display against Olympiakos radiating class and experience. It is perhaps damning on the club that into his 40s and having played the majority of his career as a flying winger, Giggs is arguably United’s most effective option in midfield.
Despite his age, the Welshman remains more mobile than Carrick and Fellaini and that energy can prove invaluable. Giggs is often criticised for giving the ball away too cheaply when deployed in the centre of the park, but the truth is that is often a result of an attempted pass forwards that others lack the vision to see.
A common criticism of United’s midfield is that it lacks creativity, with too many sideways passes and not enough sharp, incisive balls forward and through the centre, something which Giggs provided plenty of on Wednesday night despite barely featuring for the best part of a few months. It was a point made very well by Gary Neville after the game, that Giggs receives the ball and looks forwards. It adds tempo to United’s play and gives confidence to those ahead of him that if they make a run he may pick them out.
Much has been made of a lack of threat in behind in recent weeks, but both Rooney and Van Persie demonstrated that they are capable of making intelligent runs beyond opposition defences. Pertinently though, it was Giggs who found them and directly contributed to United’s first two goals. Each time the record appearance maker picked up the ball in midfield and played a penetrative ball beyond the Greeks’ defence.
Reinforcements in the midfield are unquestionably needed in the summer, but for now Ryan Giggs may still remain the club’s best option on the big occasion as the season draws to a conclusion.
3. Pace and purpose
Everyone associated with the club knew that it was a big game on Wednesday night. Yes, winning the Champions League is unlikely, but after a lamentable defeat at the hands of Liverpool the club needed a positive result and a lift. In this regard, it was refreshing to see some real pace, tempo and urgency to United’s play. The team looked like they wanted to attack, like they wanted to fight.
Whenever news filters through that Mata or Januzaj are not starting, it is invariably met with discontent, “4-4-2 again… more crosses”. Ironically, with Mata cup-tied and Januzaj seemingly suffering slightly from burnout in what has been an impressive debut season, United delivered one of their best and most balanced displays of the season.
Welbeck and Valencia provided great pace and width on the flanks and it was noticeable that this opened up more space for Rooney and Van Persie to work through the middle. It adds more credence to the notion that Moyes still doesn’t know his best tactical shape with the players at his disposal, but one thing is for sure: this was an organised, balanced and purposeful performance.
Twice through Van Persie and Rooney respectively, runs were made in behind the Olympiakos defence and Giggs picked out delightful balls ultimately resulting in two goals. The pace, the movements and the workrate of the side were full of energy and purpose and that translated into a strong result come the final whistle.
There’s no doubt that United look better with pace in the side, and with Mata and Januzaj for all of their qualities lacking raw speed, Moyes may have to make some tough decisions for the good of the team. But these are the kinds of big decisions, that affect big players, that the manager of Manchester United simply has to make and it is hoped that Moyes is brave enough to do so.
Ironically, following possibly his finest display of the season, Van Persie’s regrettable late injury may give Moyes and fans an opportunity to witness Mata in his preferred role behind Rooney and a far more balanced look to the side. Whatever happens, it is hoped that the hunger and tempo from Wednesday night will be a prevalent theme in the final parts of the season.
4. Credit Moyes?
Social media was rife with criticism and those bemoaning Moyes’ team selection an hour before kick-off. A few hours later and the Scot was vindicated by his selection. After all the criticism, it is only fair to give praise when it is due, and David Moyes got it right against Olympiakos.
As mentioned, the team was brimming with pace and energy and United looked far more dangerous moving forwards than they have for some time. Although outnumbered in midfield, despite a few nervy moments on the counter attack the team was well set-up defensively, with Rooney (as is becoming tradition) tasked with dropping deeper to help out in midfield.
Welbeck’s clever and quick movement posed a threat all evening and Valencia, having soldiered on admirably following a nasty collision, delivered an encouraging display despite seemingly only having the vision of one eye (perhaps fans should chip in for an eye patch if it maintains his form).
The team as a whole looked balanced and assured and more importantly looked as though they understood the plan and executed it effectively. Vastly more improvement is necessary, but on what was a tricky night, Moyes deserves credit for a performance and team selection that paid dividends.
5. Turning point?
Turning point? How many times have you heard that this season? Mindful of not wanting to encourage readers to break into renditions of Paula Abdul, it really has been one step forwards and two steps back for most of the season thus far. Talk of the victory signalling a turning point was inevitable but there is a dire need for perspective.
Firstly, this was a match at Old Trafford against Olympiakos, without disrespect, the result should be an expected one for a club like Manchester United; this wasn’t a heroic victory, merely business as usual.
Moreover, United have played well at times this season, albeit sporadically, but consistency is where they have struggled. One result is only ever a turning point if what follows is an entirely new direction to that previously, and for that to be the case the reds need to embark on a run of results between now and the end of the season.
Minor positives can be taken from the game, but now really is the time for the club to step up into the next gear. With tough games to come away to West Ham United and at home to Manchester City, it would be typical of Moyes’ campaign to slump back into mediocrity.
Nevertheless, with positive results in the next few fixtures the fans may finally have some progression, improvement and continuity to hold onto moving forwards.
Even facing a 2-0 first leg deficit, beating Olympiakos in the Champions League should by no means be a significant result. Big tests are still to come and with United only beating Arsenal of those above them in the League so far this season, it is hoped that bigger performances are still to come too. If they do, it may just be a sign that Moyes is finally beginning to come to terms with the biggest job in football
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