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.
Phil Jones is the hardest man alive. How many times is this young man going to put his body on the line for the cause. One silly foul early on (that amounted to nothing) was more than made up for with his countless interceptions, massive tackles and calm and collected defending. His performance is something the older heads can take a look at and try to emulate. And then there was Antonio Valencia. He played with one eye. I don’t know what else to say about that, it is something that speaks for itself. There is the fact it could have backfired horribly, but it didn’t, and it showed the desire to win resonates within at least some of the players.
David de Gea
Kept us in it. A virtual spectator for 70/75 minutes, but when called upon, oh how he answered those calls. Tremendous saves that kept us in the game, simple saves that kept us in the game, punches from crosses and safe hands. And on top of the showcase stuff, his distribution was spot on. Summed up in the clearance to Fellaini with a minute and a half to go. The boy is becoming a man, and people are finally beginning to believe we have one hell of a keeper in the young Spaniard.
Rooney, van Persie and a 40-year-old man
Recently, I have slated van Persie. Last night I will admit I didn’t think he should have started. But now I am admitting I was wrong. That was the van Persie of last season, he had purpose, his movement was positive, he finished his chances and looked all round happier to be playing in the red shirt. When he stepped up to take that free kick it was destined to go in. Wayne Rooney was phenomenal. Defensively and attacking wise he was exactly what we needed. People have doubts about his credentials to be a future captain, but tonight showed exactly why he is in the frame for the role. There was a slight lull in the middle of the game, but that was because he wasn’t needed, but when he was needed he stepped up to the mark. Ryan Giggs is 40. Where he wasn’t the standout performer of the night, he was certainly integral to us getting through. The ball he played to van Persie for the penalty incident was sublime, and he used his wealth of experience to steady the ship.
Not perfect all round
As wonderful a night as it was, not everything was perfect. Rafael still has a lot to learn if he is to give Moyes (or whoever it may be) one less defensive headache. Not that he was poor, he was very good for the most part, but some of his challenges were rash and he was exposed once or twice. We did sit back, rather deep in fact, and invite the pressure onto ourselves. Though we dealt with it admirably, it wasn’t ideal and caused a lot of people a lot of cardiac issues. To put ourselves in that much danger is a dangerous game to play, and fortunately Olympiakos aren’t the Greek Bayern Munich, because if they were we would have been there for the taking.
So to conclude, what a night and what a comeback. Deservedly progression was achieved and the embers of our season can be stoked into a fire yet. It has temporarily papered over the cracks that were rapidly appearing in Moyes’ rein. Hopefully the injury to van Persie isn’t serious because tonight he was on fire, and reminded us all exactly what he is capable of. We may well go out in the Quarter Finals, but football is a very strange game and no one can know what will happen down the line. Don’t forget, this season we have shown signs of promise that haven’t come to fruition but after the fight and desire shown you can’t help but start to feel that surely things have to change for David Moyes and his squad. Class is permanent.