Pitchside

The four stars who rescued Man Utd’s European dream

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Squawka delve into the stats to see which four players - well, Robin van Persie and three others - made the difference for Manchester United against Olympiacos...

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Following the 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool on Sunday, David Moyes’ position as Manchester United manager was becoming increasingly precarious, according to some sections of the press.

United had no time to feel sorry for themselves, though, with Wednesday’s Champions League encounter against Olympiacos at Old Trafford holding just as much importance, if not more. However, a 2-0 first-leg loss in Greece ensured Moyes’ men had a veritable mountain to climb.

Few would claim it was vintage United, but they managed to overturn the two-goal deficit, winning 3-0 and subsequently securing safe passage into the quarter-finals.

A determined, dogged and disciplined United generally played well and, although there were some suspect displays from the likes of Patrice Evra, other members of the old guard such as Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs enjoyed solid performances. Nevertheless, a few others stood out in particular.

Robin van Persie

The Dutchman has been the subject of increasing criticism in recent weeks, with his ineffectual showing against Liverpool leading to some supporters calling for him to be dropped.

Moyes was never likely to bend to such demands, maybe due to the inevitable roasting he would have received from the press and media had he done so and then seen United lose again. Nonetheless, Van Persie hit back with a clinical display in which he accumulated an excellent Squawka Performance Score of 103.

The Dutchman may have struggled to get some of United’s lofted passes under control, but he did not make a single mistake in front of goal, netting all three of his attempts on goal and winning the penalty which he ultimately converted.

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David De Gea

Interestingly, United’s next best players in terms of performance score were all at the other end of the pitch and on 51, David De Gea was nearly as crucial to United’s progression as Van Persie.

For long periods – particularly in the first half – the Spaniard had little to do, but he made a fantastic double save just before the break, denying David Fuster and Alejandro Dominguez in quick succession, with United netting their second just a few moments later.

It was undoubtedly a huge turning point in the match. Had either effort gone in, United would have needed to have scored an additional three to Van Persie’s penalty. Given their recent form, few would have expected such a turnaround.

It was De Gea’s busiest night of the Champions League so far this season as he made three stops, while he was bold, confident and dependable with crossing, successfully completing 100 per cent of his attempt claims. It was arguably United’s biggest match of the season, and he stepped up admirably.

Rafael

On 46 points was Rafael, one of United’s villains from the weekend. The feisty Brazilian looked more like his old self as he scurried forward with endeavour and purpose, while he defended with determined grit.

Three of his seven attempted tackles were a success and he was surprisingly strong in the air, winning four out of five headed duels, but he was particularly astute at nipping in front of his man at stealing possession.

He made four interceptions on the night and his all-round game seemed to be more commanding. Just as well, too, with reports beginning to circulate about a possible United move for Everton’s Seamus Coleman.

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Phil Jones

Finally, on a score of 36 was Phil Jones. The England international regularly looks liable to a calamitous error – and Wednesday was little different in that respect – but he generally kept his concentration.

Like Rafael, he often looked to make quick interceptions just before an opponent’s pass reached its destination, and his hard pressing from the back seemed to work well on the Olympiacos attackers.

Although he only made one tackle, his performance was about forcing mistakes as much as anything. All three of his interceptions came in important phases of play in the second half, with United under the cosh for significant periods.

Where he was most notably effective, however, was in possession. In total, 92% of his passes met a team-mate as he looked assured and composed passing out from defence.

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This match by no means suggests things will suddenly be all rosy again for United. They could quite easily go back to square one with defeat at West Ham on Saturday.

It might, however, serve as a much-needed boost ahead of the run-in. They are unlikely to even challenge for a top-four finish now, but consistent performances like the one on Wednesday night, showing such desire and determination, could help keep Moyes in a job.

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