A sensational Robin van Persie hat-trick saw Manchester United beat Olympiakos 3-0 to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals
Under-pressure United manager David Moyes saw his side produce a much-improved performance from Sunday’s 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool, and Van Persie made the difference as the ailing Premier League champions overcame a 2-0 first-leg deficit to go through.
In the night’s other Champions League last 16 ties, there was less drama. Last season’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund lost 2-1 at home to Zenit St Petersburg but progressed 5-4 on aggregate.
United had only previously come back from a first-leg defeat to win a Champions League tie once before, against Roma in the 2007 quarter-finals, and the listless nature of their recent displays would have done little to inspire confidence among the home fans at Old Trafford.
However, a Wayne Rooney header that came back off the post set the tone before the three-time European champions were awarded a penalty midway through the first half when Jose Holebas barged into the back of Van Persie.
The Dutchman confidently beat Roberto from the spot, and the Spanish goalkeeper then did well to save from a Patrice Evra header.
Olympiakos, who retained the Greek title at the weekend, remained a threat and United goalkeeper David de Gea made a brilliant double save to deny David Fuster and Chori Dominguez as half-time approached.
But United levelled the tie on aggregate in first-half stoppage time when Rooney’s low cross was lashed home first-time by Van Persie – before he scored the decisive third goal, and completed his hat-trick, by curling home a free-kick in the 52nd minute.
Moyes will be delighted that his side held on, although there were plenty of nerves on the night, and Evra picked up a yellow card that rules him out of the first leg of their quarter-final. Van Persie also went off with an injury late on, although Moyes later reported that it did not appear to be anything serious.
“The way the players responded after Sunday’s defeat pleased me. I said to them on Monday morning we had to win 3-0 and give the crowd something back,” the Scot said. “They deserved it because we’ve not given them much to shout about. The players were incredibly committed. We didn’t play well in Greece but tonight we put it right, and we deserved it."
With United 18 points off the lead in the English Premier League and 12 points shy of the top four after Sunday’s defeat, Moyes’s position has come under some scrutiny. Some British media reports suggested that his job would remain at risk regardless of the outcome of the Olympiakos tie, but he said he was confident he retained the full support of his employers.
“I’m not feeling any pressure from inside the club,” he said. “It’s coming from you people [the media]. We know the job we have to do. It’s probably bigger than what I thought when I first came to the club.
“There are stories of this player falling out, or that one falling out, but it’s rubbish. People are looking for reasons why we are not doing well, but it is only because we have not been playing well.”
He added: “I see myself here for a long time. I think we know we have a lot of work to do, but it’s a great result and we want to stay in the competition.”
Moyes also paid tribute to 40-year-old midfielder Ryan Giggs, who made brilliant raking passes in the build-up to both of his side’s first two goals.
“It’s incredible, the amount of games he’s played in the Champions League,” Moyes said. “He was fantastic – the passes he made for the two goals, his general football. He’s a freak.”
United and Dortmund join reigning champions Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the quarter-final draw, which will be made on Friday. Yet while their domestic travails suggest United are unlikely candidates to win the tournament, Moyes said he believes they can go all the way.
“We probably now will go into it as underdogs in a lot of the games,” he said. “Hopefully we can do it. I don’t see any reason why not.
“I think this club is capable of it. If we play to our capabilities, which we have not done too often, then I think we will be a match for any team.”
Olympiakos have now lost on all of their 12 visits to England, but having emerged from a group containing Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica before almost upsetting United, coach Michel was eager to emphasise the positives.
“I’m very disappointed, because when I saw the players in the dressing room, it wasn’t a nice sight to see,” said the former Real Madrid midfielder, whose side retained the Greek league title last Saturday.
“But overall, it was a good season in Europe. We have to look forward.”