Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Manchester United's Robin van Persie hits hat-trick to stun Olympiakos

Robin-van-Persie-Manchester United-Olympiacos-Champions-League
Robin van Persie salutes the Manchester United faithful after scoring his third goal against Olympiakos.
Photograph: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images
It was a night that began with wild stories of Manchester United supporters planning to tear down the "Chosen One" banner and finished with David Moyes punching the air and saluting the crowd. His team had finally remembered what is expected of them inside this stadium and, in the process, they reminded everyone at Old Trafford what a special place this can be, under the floodlights, on the big occasions.
They were scenes of great jubilation and it feels like nitpicking to point out the victory songs did not extend to serenading Moyes. In every other respect, this was his finest moment in a difficult, often harrowing, first eight months as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor, and it may just have kept him in a job.
Robin van Persie certainly chose a good moment to remind us of his gifts with the hat-trick that thrusts United into Friday's quarter-final draw. Another bad night for Moyes would have seen the club concede any chance of silverware at the earliest stage of a season for a quarter of a century. The Glazers had flown in and Moyes had started to look alarmingly vulnerable. Instead they played like the old, swashbuckling United, with speed of thought, bravery and anticipation. All the qualities, to put it another way, the crowd at Old Trafford consider mandatory.
Van Persie put them on the way with a penalty after 24 minutes. His second goal arrived just before half-time and the hat-trick was completed seven minutes into the second half. Yet Moyes, amid a rich eulogy for the Dutchman, was correct to emphasise this was a collective effort. Phil Jones, bar one early mistake, may just have nailed down his credentials at centre-back. Danny Welbeck ran for everything and David de Gea was flawless, sparing his team-mates another possible ordeal with a brilliant double save when the score was 1-0.
Wayne Rooney linked up with Van Persie as though affronted by the recent scrutiny of their partnership and Antonio Valencia epitomised the home side's commitment. The black eye he collected in an early clash of heads would have ended many boxing contests. Yet he played as though oblivious to the ugly swelling, the size of a golf ball, that was almost closing his eye.
What has to be remembered is that Olympiakos have now lost all 12 of their visits to England, conceding 37 goals in the process. They were generous opponents for a team teetering on the brink of crisis and United were undoubtedly helped by some feeble defending.
For the penalty, the left-back, José Holebas, really could have avoided bumping into Van Persie as the striker controlled Giggs's cross-field pass. A more accomplished team would have closed out the first half rather than exposing themselves to Van Persie for a second occasion and it was the flimsiest of defensive walls for his hat-trick.
This did, however, feel like a significant moment for Moyes. His team played with character and nerve, under considerable pressure, facing down their opponents during the awkward moments, at 3-0, when an away goal would have changed everything.
Jones headed away just about everything. Rio Ferdinand rolled back the years and De Gea's performance makes it feel preposterous that he probably will not make Spain's squad for the World Cup this summer.
More than anything, this was a night when Ryan Giggs reminded Old Trafford of his enduring qualities. He had not started a game since 28 January but his refinement on the ball was a feature all night, including a handsome contribution to the first two goals, and nobody should rush into thinking this has to be his final year. At 40, with silver flecks in his hair, Giggs can be over-run sometimes. Yet he lasted the full 90 minutes and United have missed his intelligence on the ball.
Van Persie's late injury was not apparently serious and the only other downside for United was the yellow card that rules Patrice Evra out of the first leg of the quarter-finals. Otherwise, their evening went to a perfect script. The noise inside Old Trafford was louder than at any point this season and Moyes's players seemed to have shed their inhibitions.
"Attack, attack, attack," was the order from the Stretford End, and United duly obliged. Rooney had already skimmed the post, from one of Giggs's perfectly weighted diagonal crosses, before Van Persie's penalty changed the complexion of the game.
There were still moments when Olympiakos counterattacked and a sudden, damp silence fell over the stadium but, defensively, there was a naivety about the team from Athens.
Van Persie's second, after a quick exchange of passes with Rooney and Giggs, was a side-footed finish past the goalkeeper, Roberto, and then came the moment when United were ahead, on aggregate, for the first time. Welbeck was fouled 25 yards out and the wall parted obligingly as Van Persie sized up his shot and pulled back that stylish left foot.
The Guardian

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