It was by no means the perfect performance, but it was certainly better than most of what David Moyes’ Manchester United side have served up so far this season. The rapturous Old Trafford faithful finally witnessed a display representative of the quality of the players at the Scotsman’s disposal, as three goals from Robin van Persie saw their side become only the second side in UEFA Champions League history to overturn a two-goal first leg deficit and book their place in the tournament’s last eight. Here are the main positives and reasons for caution for United fans, as the dust settles on a memorable night at Old Trafford.
1. Attacking Intent
This was Manchester United as most people expected to see them under Moyes; they had their flaws (more of that later) but masked them by attacking at speed, working tirelessly and being ruthless in front of goal. The quintessential need for goals on the night made the United players’ decision making very straight-forward; they had to play the more incisive pass, create the overlap or run in behind and each and every one of them looked better for it.
Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia can all look insipid when they frequently choose the safer option but, knowing they had to go for broke, made strong contributions as United’s forwards took control of the match. Granted, United gave the ball away rather often, which contributed to an end-to-end affair, and Moyes will no doubt wish to exercise greater caution on other occasions, but a more positive approach throughout the team certainly made for a much more potent attacking display.
2. Danny Welbeck injected pace into the side
Moyes’ decision to recall Valencia brought greater attacking thrust down United’s right hand side, but Danny Welbeck’s display was even more impressive. The England man was irrepressible; at times moving inside to occupy the Olympiakos centre-backs, at others racing away from right-back Leandro Salino, but also contributing to the defensive effort with constant pressing and impeccable discipline.
Welbeck’s sublime display last night led Sky Sports’ punditry team to question David Moyes’ decision to omit him from the side in recent weeks but, in fairness to the Scot, Adnan Januzaj has had a brilliant season and dropping £37million man Juan Mata would have induced even greater criticism. Nevertheless, the Salford boy has surely made himself undroppable for Saturday’s trip to Upton Park, and offers United a different dimension. England boss Roy Hodgson is sure to have been impressed, too.
3. Robin van Persie looks interested again
The Dutchman’s recent performances have been so poor that it wouldn’t have been a huge shock if he was omitted from the starting eleven last night. Prior to Sunday’s humbling at the hands of Liverpool, van Persie stated that he remained happy at Old Trafford, but his performance was so devoid of quality and enthusiasm that many United fans’ must have shuddered at the thought of seeing him play when he’s not happy.
Last night, however, afforded more support and service from his team-mates, “RvP” was rejuvenated. He led from the front as United looked to get on the front foot, and his superbly taken second goal was a reminder of just how sharp he can be in the penalty area. David Moyes will want his top scorer to stay in this kind of form, as he looks to build towards next season.
Reasons for Caution – 1. The central midfield is short of legs
Ryan Giggs’ display of class and poise alongside Michael Carrick, epitomised by the two defence-splitting passes that led to van Persie’s first half goals, added some much-needed creativity to United’s midfield, but the fact remains that he is 40 years old. Gary Neville claimed that his former team-mate is a shoo-in to start when Manchester City visit Old Trafford on Tuesday, but if that were to be the case, Giggs would almost certainly be over-powered by the imperious Fernandinho and Yaya Toure.
Moreover, all of United’s potential Champions League opponents boast dynamic midfielders, and are all almost certain to line-up with a central trio in the engine room. Demanding Wayne Rooney to drop in and make up the numbers while being charged with driving United forward creates a strain on his midfield companions that will surely be too much for Giggs’ aging legs to cope with, against elite opposition. With Moyes search for a successful formula bearing very little fruit this season, the centre of the park is an area that United’s opposition in the next round, whoever they are, will surely to look to exploit.
2. Olympiakos created chances
For all their good attacking play, United were indebted to goalkeeper David De Gea, who has surely been their player of the season, for securing their passage to the next round. At 1-0, Patrice Evra was nowhere to be seen as the Greek Champions carved United open on down the right flank, and from the resulting centre, shocking marking first allowed David Fuster a free header then Alejandro Dominguez a clear chance on the follow-up. Both efforts were expertly repelled by De Gea, but the move highlighted United’s persistent defensive vulnerability, which is sure to have potental last eight opponents licking their lips.
3. All previous ‘turning points’ have been false dawns
November’s win against Arsenal, four straight wins over Christmas and three away Premier League clean sheets were all depicted as turning points, moments when David Moyes faltering Manchester United tenure would finally get off the ground. However, United followed up their win over the Gunners with four winless matches, their festive resurgence with three defeats in their next five games, and their latest upturn in fortunes by being massacred at the hands of Liverpool.
Moreover, United have endured further embarrassment at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester City, which does little to suggest that they’re capable of beating the very best sides. That Olympiakos sold their best player and top scorer, Kostas Mitroglou to the Premier League’s bottom side, Fulham, in January provides an indication of their true level of quality and it remains to be seen whether Wednesday’s game really is a turning point for David Moyes’ United regime, or just another false dawn.