October 10th 2001
Olympiakos 0-2 Manchester United
Olympiakos (4-2-3-1): Eleftheropoulos; Patsatzoglou, Bermudez, Anatolakis, Venetidis; Karembeu, Kostoulas; Giannakopoulos, Zetterberg, Djordevic (Alexandris, 81min); Giovanni.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Barthez; G Neville, Johnsen, Blanc, Irwin (Silvestre, 89); Keane, Veron (Cole, 80); Beckham, Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy (Solskjaer, 85).
Was Sir Alex Ferguson really thinking of leaving out David Beckham? We may never know but after all the talk he might be suffering from his England exertions, Manchester United’s most cherished asset provided some answers of his own last night.
After his stoppage-time intervention against Greece on Saturday, this was another example of his impeccable timing, showing why he is just as important for his club as he is for his country with the first goal of a hugely satisfying evening for Ferguson’s team.
His goal just after the hour, supplemented by a late finish from the substitute Andy Cole, means United have taken six points from their opening three games of Group G and, with two of their remaining three fixtures at Old Trafford, they will be confident their progress to the next phase will not be through the back door.
“Has he lost the plot?” a tabloid wanted to know yesterday and it certainly seemed mildly ludicrous that United’s manager had called into question Beckham’s physical and mental condition at a time when England’s captain must believe that, if he fell into the Manchester ship canal, he would come up with a salmon sticking out his top pocket.
Such is the pressure on Beckham’s shoulders there must be moments when he feels he is carrying around a rucksack of bricks but his performances have seldom dipped below excellent, in good times and bad, and Ferguson was probably playing psychological games.
Yet again the manager tried out a new formation here, mirroring the 4-2-3-1 system that is so often used by top continental teams, with Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes employed behind Ruud van Nistelrooy. Ferguson still seems uncertain about the best way to maximise United’s strengths but this, at least, meant that Roy Keane and Juan Sebastian Veron could offer their defence some much needed re-inforcement.
It was clearly Ferguson’s intention to stifle their hosts and frustrate the crowd. United have been to the Ali Sami Yen, the San Siro and Nou Camp but few places are as raucous or intimidating as this stadium, venue for the 2004 Olympics, when it is bulging at the seams with 70,000-odd fanatical Greeks.
Yet there were only a couple of times inside a frenetic first half when United’s vulnerability in defence – only Leicester and Middlesbrough have let in more goals in the Premiership – were exposed and both came from set-pieces rather than open play.
Fortunately for the visitors Stylianos Giannakopolous, first with a header and then with a volley saved by Fabien Barthez at point-blank range, could not apply the finishing touches to Predrag Djordevic’s expert free-kicks. The big scoreboard here had incorporated Jaap Stam in United’s line-up and, in those hairy moments when the visitors clearly needed some defensive leadership, it was tempting for thoughts to turn to the departed Dutchman.
That is not to say United were without a rudder. For long spells they had most of the possession and, had Veron not steered a left-shot wide after being teed up by Giggs, they would have gone into the break with the lead.
The start of the second half prompted the first concerted spell of pressure from the visitors, with Keane and Veron beginning to occupy more advanced positions and Giggs offering both width and penetration.
The movement of Ferguson’s players was causing more and more problems and midway through the half Beckham showed just why he could not be left out.
Elusive as ever, Giggs cut to the byline and his chipped cross caught the Greek defence static. Beckham needed no more invitation, darting in front of Bermudez to stab a shot in with the outside of his right boot. So Ferguson has not lost the plot.
Suddenly the Greek defenders were playing like strangers. Giggs had a header brilliantly saved by Dimitrios Eleftheropoulos and Blanc saw one flash narrowly wide. But every time United broke forward they looked capable of scoring and, two minutes after emerging as a substitute for Veron, Cole doubled the lead after 81 minutes, dissecting the Greek defence with clever interplay with Van Nistelrooy before slotting the ball home.