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article imageManchester United's experienced players shine against Olympiakos

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 19, 2014 in Sports
With David Moyes' job under heavy scrutiny, overcoming a dynamic Olympiakos side extended the Scotsman's reign as Manchester United manager. A combination of experience, belief and togetherness guided Moyes' side into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Moyes stuck with an out of form Robin van Persie ahead of Wayne Rooney, while Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs also featured in midfield. While United didn’t produce a memorable performance, the aforementioned players, along with David De Gea were sensational.
Giggs, in particular, was the catalyst behind United’s best moves in the first half. The 40-year-old hasn’t featured regularly this season, but he’s been utilized in midfield for his creativity, and proficient passing — here, he validated his inclusion in the starting XI.
Alejandro Dominguez shackled Michael Carrick in the opening period, as Olympiakos dropped into two narrow banks of four when United sustained possession. The Greek side’s approach without the ball was logical — the wingers tucked infield to limit passing lanes — but quickly pressed the United full-backs when they received possession — while their numerical advantage in midfield ensured that United encountered difficulties in central area; Nelvin N’Dinga tracked Rooney and Giannis Maniatis closed down Giggs.
Nevertheless, there were two issues with Olympiakos’ approach: Maniatis’ press on Giggs was mediocre, whereas Jose Holebas stuck tight on Antonio Valencia. Giggs issued a warning to Maniatis in the early stages of the match when he was free to play a simple ball over the top into the left channel for Welbeck, thus forcing Kosta Manolas to foul the Englishman. Giggs also delivered a long diagonal to Rooney, but Roberto directed his header off the post.
"I thought Giggsy
was fantastic," Moyes said. "The passes he made for the two goals, his general play - more importantly his general fitness.”
Also, Holebas’ intent on preventing 1v1 battles with Valencia opened up half-space for United’s attackers to penetrate. Once again, it was Giggs who exploited the vacant space, due to his freedom in midfield. His long diagonal towards van Persie led to Holebas’ clumsy tackle on the Dutchman, thus resulting in a penalty. Subsequently, Leandro Salino and Manolas’ lack of awareness regarding van Persie’s movement, and Holebas’ naivety towards closing down Rooney, contributed to United’s second goal.
The scoreline, though, was deceiving, as Olympiakos weren’t outclassed by United, and in fairness got into great positions in the final third. A constant theme in Olympiakos’ play was their willingness to attack Patrice Evra. Salino and Hernan Perez enjoyed space behind the United left back, however, similar to their overall play, the final ball was lacking.
"We went into the match determined to play well at both ends, but we couldn't convert our openings. If I could turn back time, I'd have liked to improve our finishing or avoid the errors we committed in defence," Michel said.
Ultimately, van Persie’s finishing was the difference on the night — albeit an average performance — as his confidence, and ruthlessness in front of goal mattered most. Rooney covered every blade of grass; he dropped deeper to win tackles, and circulated possession neatly. Then there was De Gea: when United looked most vulnerable to lose the tie, the Spanish goalkeeper made a few sensational saves to prevent the Greek side from scoring an away goal.
"We looked to get behind them. The players were incredibly committed. They are hurting as well, they know we are not doing as well as we should be doing,” Moyes said.
Subsequent to van Persie’s third goal United dropped deeper into their half, which invited Olympiakos to push forward. Michel opted to move Joel Campbell to the right — after his tremendous first half showing in which he tormented Phil Jones — and Nelson Valdez upfront. The away side constantly surged down the right flank, but the remaining minutes of the second half was a drab.
This was far from a perfect performance, but United advance to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2011. Individual brilliance from Moyes’ experienced players, and silly defensive errors from Michel’s men saw United squeak past Olympiakos.
More about Manchester United, Van Persie, Champions League, ryan giggs, Rooney
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