October 23rd 2001
United 3-0 Olympiakos
Manchester United (4-4-1-1) : Barthez; G Neville, Blanc, Brown, Irwin; Beckham, Butt (Solskjaer, 71), Veron, Giggs; Scholes; Van Nistelrooy.
Olympiakos Piraeus (4-4-2) : Eleftheropoulos; Mavrogenidis (Poursanidis, h-t), Amanatidis, Anatolakis, Kontis; Giannakopoulos (Roberts, 83), Karembeu, Patsatzoglou, Djordjevic; Ofori Quaye; Alexandris (Alvez, 61)
Manchester United walked a tightrope to the second round of the Champions League here last night but at least this time nobody sent in the clowns. In the end Olympiakos were emphatically beaten, though not before United had missed a penalty and seen a free-kick superbly turned on to a post.
It took the arrival of the eternal substitute, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to produce the goal which, in spite of considerable attacking pressure, had eluded United for 79 minutes. This was followed by a couple more from Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy as the stubborn Greek defending that had thwarted Sir Alex Ferguson’s side for most of the game finally disintegrated.
With Deportivo and Lille drawing 1-1 in La Coruna Manchester United will go to northern France next week hoping to get a better result against Lille in Lens than Deportivo, the present group leaders, achieve against Olympiakos in Piraeus. As group winners United would stand to avoid the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona in the next phase.
For the moment just getting past the first round is enough. Last night Ferguson’s players quelled much of the doubt about their future progress in this season’s competition without quite banishing it altogether.
The looseness of much of United’s football, the frequency with which the ball was given away and the familiar gaps in their defence evoked memories of the way mistakes had been punished by Deportivo at Old Trafford six nights earlier.
The vision of Pedrag Djordevic, prowling Cruyff-like on the left, threatened to undo the cable stitching in United’s back four and more than once the latest centre-back combination of Laurent Blanc and Wes Brown appeared at odds with itself. That said, Fabien Barthez had very little to do. Olympiakos threatened more in theory than practice.
In contrast, and until he was beaten by Solskjaer, the goalkeeping of Dimitrios Eleftheropoulos looked like inflicting another night of frustration at Old Trafford. From the moment when he kept out a sharp downward header from Van Nistelrooy in the seventh minute Eleftheropoulos looked impassable.
His crowning moment, moreover, came not with the penalty he saved from Van Nistelrooy three minutes past the hour but 12 minutes later when he somehow managed to touch the free-kick which Juan Sebastian Veron had swung around the wall of defenders on to the inside of a post.
The evening was a triumph for the strength, skill and sheer persistence of Van Nistelrooy whose contribution to United’s opening goal, when he forced his way past two defenders to lay the ball into Solskjaer’s path, was far more crucial than the one he scored himself.
There was, however, no escaping the fact that the Dutchman became effective only once he had been joined by another striker, Solskjaer. Up to that point the support of Paul Scholes had been sporadic.
Manchester United could ill-afford further slip-ups last night after losing at home to Deportivo.
It was not long before the balding pate of Djordevic was to be found setting up infiltrating movements in that space between midfield and back four which in Europe, and particularly at Old Trafford, United’s opponents find so inviting. With sharper reactions Alexios Alexandris might have scored twice in the opening 23 minutes.
More scares for United followed and their anxiety was not eased when Van Nistelrooy failed to score from a penalty given against Christos Patsatzoglou for handball.
Then Solskjaer struck before Veron’s expert way with passes saw Giggs outpace the defence to touch in United’s second after 88 minutes and Van Nistelrooy squeeze in a third in stoppage time.
Deportivo La Coruna drew 1-1 with Lille in their Group G match last night to assure the Spanish club’s place in the second group stage.