Manchester United 3 Olympiakos 0 (agg. 3-2)
It was a night that demanded heroes and United, so late in the season, discovered heroism was still in their make-up. Rooney covered every blade of the pitch; Giggs’ engine purred magnificently in the centre of the midfield; Danny Welbeck provided the pace so often lacking in United’s attacking play this season; De Gea, when called upon, produced vital saves. Valencia, nursing a heavily swollen eye for much of the game following an early clash of heads, played so well with it there must now be a temptation to nut him in the dressing room before every game. Van Persie, who also left the pitch wounded, rediscovered the quality that had remained hidden for so much of the season and his hat-trick was what overturned the first leg deficit to give his team victory on a memorable night.
The first half was pulsating stuff at times. Though possession was relatively even and both sides created chances, the Reds had the best of them and, more importantly, made them count. As United began to mount sustained pressure for the first time, Rooney’s header struck the post following a delightful cross from Giggs into the area. A clumsy challenge from Holebas gave United their breakthrough, his shove on Van Persie drawing an immediate penalty decision from the referee. Van Persie had been looking to get on the end of a penetrating ball from Giggs, who was beginning to create problems every time he had the ball. The Dutchman stepped up and made no mistake from the spot.
The remainder of the first half saw good chances at both ends. Roberto was called into action in the 35th minute when he pawed away an Evra header from a corner. With half-time approaching, De Gea made a fantastic double save to preserve United’s lead, after United had yielded possession on the left and allowed the visitors to remind us of the attacking threat they possessed. Between the two incidents, United were denied a strong call for a second penalty when Valencia was bundled over just inside the box, but the referee waved the Reds’ protests away. United bounced back from it and made the tie level before half-time, Van Persie grabbing his second when he latched onto a simple ball into the box from his forward partner, who’d been released via yet another excellent ball from deep from Giggs, as the half moved into stoppage time.
Six minutes into the second half United had their third and Van Persie had his hat-trick. An excellent run and ball from Rooney fed Welbeck, who was crudely fouled on the edge of the box and Van Persie found the bottom corner of the net from the resulting free kick. At the time, it looked as if it might be the precursor to a Reds romp, but Olympiakos adjusted their shape and began to secure more possession, leading to some uneasy moments in the United defence. Among the last ditch clearances, De Gea was forced to save smartly again when a deflected shot from the lively Dominguez threatened to sneak in at the near post.
United had their moments too, but this was a nervy last twenty minutes and the tension only really lifted when Fellaini was brought on for the five minutes of stoppage time and proceeded to draw fouls and corners from the opposition, generally breaking up play and briefly imposing his own rather odd brand of heroism on the night’s events to see out time and secure a remarkable result.
Olympiakos must be wondering how this could be the same side that whimpered so ineffectively in that first leg in Greece. They’re not alone in that. Turns out United’s season isn’t over after all. Of course, there are a lot of big names awaiting us in Friday’s quarter-final draw and there’s still nothing to suggest that Champions League success this season is anything more than a distant dream. Then again, the performance tonight was that of a team who surely have the capacity to produce something special at least once more this season. For now at least, the season’s one remaining dream still isn’t over.