October 1st 2002
United 4-0 Olympiakos
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Barthez; G Neville, Ferdinand, Blanc (O’Shea 67), Silvestre; Beckham, Butt, Veron, Giggs (Fortune, 67); Scholes (Forlan 77); Solskjaer.
Olympiakos (4-5-1): Eleftheropoulos; Amanatidis (Patsatzoglou 72), Antzas, Anatolakis, Venetidis; Giannakopoulos (Edu Dracena h-t), Karembeu, Ze Elias, Djordjevic; Zetterberg, Oforiquaye (Alexandris 59).
The disparagement that has accompanied Manchester United’s scruffy start to the season is making way for admiration. Sir Alex Ferguson is growing accustomed to the unfavourable comparisons with Arsenal but he can be buoyed by one of the most impressive performances from his side for a long time.
By comprehensively outplaying Olympiakos, inspired by a renascent Juan Sebastian Veron and Ryan Giggs, United all but guaranteed their qualification for the Champions League’s second phase.
Olympiakos arrived in Manchester having never won any of their previous 17 Champions League excursions and, for these sufferers of travel sickness, Old Trafford was always likely to represent another chastening experience.
United turned out in their blue away kit after the French referee Gilles Veissiere ruled a red stripe running down the side of the visitors’ black shirts would clash with the usual home tops.
The Red Devils’ sharpness in attack may have been blunted by the hamstring injury that forced Ruud van Nistelrooy’s omission but, with Paul Scholes alert in the space directly behind Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Giggs looking increasingly like his old self and David Beckham as willing as ever on the right, the two-goal lead they nurtured before half-time did not flatter their superiority.
Scholes, at long last, is beginning to show the signs that he is finally acclimatising to his more advanced role and it was his intuitive pass that was the catalyst for the first goal.
Giggs’s central run had taken him clear of the Olympiakos defence and, though the ball got snarled under his feet as he was challenged by Georgios Amanatidis, the Welshman swiftly regained his balance, angling a low shot past Dimitrios Eleftheropoulos.
The rejuvenation of one of their most potent attackers has been a significant feature of United’s gradual return to form and Giggs, with a level of self-belief that was scarcely evident just a couple of weeks ago, would represent a constant menace to their opponents with his direct running and penetration.
Earlier in the season, it is a fair assumption that he would never have tried the showboating with Veron that sliced open the right side of the Greeks during one particularly sumptuous attack.
The same applies to Veron but this was one of his more aesthetic nights and the goal with which he doubled United’s lead may not be bettered throughout this season’s competition.
A crisp one-two with Beckham took out a clutch of static defenders and Veron, showing the type of acceleration that has rarely been seen during his time at Old Trafford, was suddenly clear. Eleftheropoulos made up Veron’s mind with his charge off his goalline but, even so, the delicate pitch-wedge that the Argentinian executed over the Olympiakos goalkeeper into a gaping goal was a moment deserving of the highest acclaim. Just as impressive, Ferguson will have noted that both Veron and Nicky Butt won meaty challenges to establish possession in the first place.
One moment of South American impudence was followed by a piece of South American brutalism. Veron’s imperiousness had clearly been noted and, as the opening half wound up, the Brazilian midfielder Ze Elias scythed into him with a studs-up lunge that, had it properly connected, might have eliminated the danger once and for all. The red card flourished by the referee was thoroughly deserved and, with it, any lingering hopes among the Greek camp were extinguished.
Midway through the half Giggs scored again, his 18th goal in European competition. This time there was more than an element of good fortune attached. It was clearly the intention of Giggs to cross the ball as he broke clear on the left but the ball flew off his foot at an angle that deceived Eleftheropoulous and went inside the goalkeeper’s near post.
All that was left then was for Solskjaer, teed up by Scholes 13 minutes from the end of normal time, to add a final flourish with a typically composed finish from 12 yards. For United, the rest of Group F promises to be a cakewalk.