|Robin van Persie celebrates his hat-trick with Wayne Rooney,
in Manchester, on Wednesday. (AP)
London: Something old and something new signalled one of the great comebacks in European soccer on Wednesday night. Ryan Giggs, now five months past his 40th birthday, provided quite possibly the two finest passes of Manchester United’s season.
Both led to goals. And suddenly, Manchester were moving from desperation to triumph over the Greek champion Olympiakos. The message was transmitted in new technology at halftime.
“Giggsy showing his world class passes as he has been doing for so many times!” tweeted Edwin van der Sar, who retired as United’s goalkeeper in 2011.
“Good to see the ‘old’ man taking the team by the hand!” Van der Sar concluded. The former goalie had put his finger right on it.
United, a winner of the Champions League in his time, have had a shocking season thus far. Giggs had not started a match since January, his career, like the team, seemed to be fading.
But make no mistake: United are in the hat for Friday’s quarter-final draw principally because Giggs managed to roll back the years, and with those searing, visionary, 40-yard passes to create the openings for that comeback victory.
To be sure, Robin van Persie got the three goals in a 3-0 home win that wiped out the 2-0 victory that Olympiakos had celebrated in the first leg in Athens. Wayne Rooney was tireless in the cause. Danny Welbeck was full of youthful zest on the left flank, and Antonio Valencia pushed bravery to the limits by soldiering on through 70 minutes with a swelling the size of an egg above his closed left eye.
And, yes, United’s goalie David De Gea was stretched to pull off timely saves, never more so than just before halftime, when he blocked David Fuster’s header with his left foot and then, scampering up from the turf and flinging himself in the opposite direction, deflected the follow-up from Alejandro Dominguez. The record book will show that Van Persie’s hat trick — with a penalty kick, a predator’s second goal, and a free kick cleverly worked out with Rooney — was the match-winner.
But if Van Persie was the executioner (which he has not been for much of this season), Giggs was most certainly the instigator. At the end, when to most people’s surprise he was still there, still sprightly, he was met by a TV crew at the side of the playing field.
With his grey stubble and his thinning hair, Giggs looks somewhat different from the dashing, dark-haired, fleet-footed winger who arrived on the scene over 23 years ago. Then he was so well balanced he could trick defenders with the drop of a shoulder.
Now he “sits” in central midfield, plotting the counterattacks with passes that cut like laser beams through or over the defensive lines. The others can do the running; with Giggs it is all in the mind.
David Moyes, the new and hard-pressed manager who had made Giggs player-coach last summer, must be credited with getting his team’s lineup right. After last Sunday, when United were humbled on its own turf by Liverpool, Moyes had to take a grilling from the media questioning whether he was the right man to manage the team.
Worse, if he had listened to the radio call-in shows, or read any of the Internet confetti, Moyes would have heard his character and even his basic ability to manage players impugned in the most brutal terms.
Everyone out there, and in the media these days, thinks he or she is a better manager than the one in the post. “This club,” Moyes said at his pre-match media conference on Tuesday, “will rise again.”
He couldn’t, dared not, say it would be as soon as Wednesday. The years dropped off this beleaguered 50-year-old man during the comeback. At halftime, by which time United was level with Olympiakos, he broke into a jog as he made his way from the field to the dressing room. And afterward, when he faced the immediate post-match TV inquisition, the relief was written large on Moyes’ face. “Tonight, we put it right,” he said. “Tonight, the players showed we’ve got a big heart.”
And his man Giggs? “He’s a freak, he really is,” the manager said. “You look at the number of games he’s played in this tournament, and you look at his general fitness, he really is something different.”
A freak, in the most accomplished sense. Giggs is still able to play after sitting on the bench for two months, and step out not as an equal but as the leader to a team that had lost belief, and lost direction. There were 150 European games, more than any other player, in that performance on Wednesday. There was his natural fitness, the God-given ability, and above all, the urge to put right what the team this season had lost faith in itself.
From here on, it can only get harder. The eight clubs in Friday’s draw are the real elite of a continent: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid.