Van Persie saves Man Utd, Dortmund completes CL quarterfinal field
A dramatic day of Champions League action saw a stunning win for Manchester United and progression, but at a cost, for Borussia Dortmund. Here is what caught the eye in Wednesday's final round of 16 matches:
Player of the Day: Robin van Persie, Manchester United
When van Persie gave an interview last week expressing his support for David Moyes and suggesting that he might even extend his contract at Manchester United, the coach didn't know it had come out in United Review, the club's official program, ahead of the Liverpool game last weekend.
For all van Persie's public show of support, the narrative surrounding his beleaguered coach was that he didn't know what his players were saying or who they were speaking to; that Moyes, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, had lost control.
It did not look that way at Old Trafford, as United rode its luck at times, but overturned the 2-0 first leg defeat to beat Olympiakos 3-0 and reach the quarterfinal. And the man who made it happen was Van Persie, ending a run of five United games without a goal in open play, with a stunning, and well-timed, hat trick.
His first was from a penalty that he earned; his second, just before halftime, a composed finish from the first pass he received from Wayne Rooney; and the third, a curling free-kick that was generously awarded and which Olympiakos goalkeeper Roberto, so impressive in the group stage, might have moved quicker to stop.
The speculation that van Persie was shocked and disappointed by Ferguson's retirement has not stopped all season; perhaps it has been easier to propagate given his performance has failed to reach the heights of last campaign, when he (almost) single-handedly fired United to the title. That form seems a long time ago now, but this was a reminder of just how good he can be. United will hope that the late injury which forced him to leave the pitch on a stretcher is not serious.
As Holland coach Louis van Gaal put it recently: "He is getting better and better - it's incredible. I have never seen any player reach Robin's age and still improve as a footballer." Or, as Pierre van Hooijdonk so eloquently put it on Twitter: "Pim Pam Persie."
Moment of the Day: David de Gea's double save
Olympiakos always looked dangerous when it came forward, especially down the right, and United's defense allowed it some chances in the first half. Hernan Perez sliced an early chance over the crossbar but the visitor came even closer just before van Persie's second.
De Gea, one of the few United players to avoid criticism this season, kept out David Fuster's header with his feet before scrambling to his near post to keep out Dominguez's powerful strike; a devastating double save that kept United in the tie. A series of stops in the second half, a period in which United nerves were on edge as it defended deeper and deeper, also proved crucial.
It seems astonishing to think that de Gea is not among Spain's top three goalkeepers - especially when you consider the lack of options behind Joe Hart in the England squad - but after the World Cup, when at least one of Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina might retire from international football, he will surely get his chance - he deserves it.
Takeaways of the Day
Ryan Giggs has still got it. He may be 40 years and 110 days old, but Giggs showed Manchester United what it had been missing for much of the season with a midfield performance of composure and intelligence; so much so that it makes Moyes' decision to use him so infrequently even more baffling.
Sure, as the oldest outfield player ever to start a Champions League knockout game, it'd be tough for Giggs to manage three games a week, but this was only his second start in United's last 11 matches.
The timing was lost on no one, coming as it did just days after Giggs denied reports of a bust-up with Moyes in the wake of United's weekend defeat to Liverpool. Giggs was outstanding in the first half, threading two passes through Olympiakos' midfield that forced two visiting players into fouls for which they were booked.
Then, two moments of vision and class which rolled back the years: A 20-yard lofted pass for Rooney to head onto the post and then, from further back, a ball onto van Persie's chest, which the Dutchman controlled before a shove from Holebas earned him a penalty. Van Persie made no mistake from the spot but it was Giggs who restored United's belief.
The same player created the second goal just before the break, a smart ball to the left where Rooney crossed for Van Persie to slide home to level the scores.
The Giggs story could be set for another twist this season: despite reports in The Guardian on Wednesday that "there have even been sporadic complaints from players behind the scenes about Ryan Giggs", it's the Welshman who would be the most likely short-term replacement if Moyes did not see out the season. For now - and don't forget United plays Manchester City next week - Giggs may have kept Moyes in a job.
In the day's other game, Hulk secured his Zenit St. Petersburg future despite the club going out at the hands of Dortmund. The stories about the Brazilian striker leaving Zenit have never really stopped since he joined 18 months ago, but they might stop now Andre Villas-Boas, his former coach at Porto, takes over as Zenit boss starting Thursday.
Hulk reminded us of his inherent talent with the goal of the night: a blistering 35-yard curler that gave Zenit a surprise lead at Dortmund. Its faint hopes did not last long: Sebastien Kehl headed an equalizer, and Dortmund eventually progressed 5-4 on aggregate.
The next question will be how his Russian teammates take to AVB's arrival, given that most of the problems at Zenit stem from the Hulk/Axel Witsel purchase back in September 2012 and the squad divisions since then. AVB will need to prove he has learned the art of man-management from his spells at Chelsea and Spurs - and if he is to end this season with a trophy, will have to claw back Lokomotiv Moscow's three-point lead with eight games left. At least he will have Hulk on his side.
How far can Dortmund and United go?
While today's games provided the most drama out of any of those on the four matchdays in this round of 16, it seems pretty inarguable that these two sides are the weakest left in the competition. That's not to say that they cannot go any further - they could - but no team would fear drawing United as it might have done in previous seasons, not anywhere close to as it would fear drawing Bayern Munich or Real Madrid (or even Chelsea).
As for Dortmund, it seems hard to make a case for a repeat of last season's run to the Champions League final. Not just because this team, with so many injuries this season, is still missing Neven Subotic and Jakub Blaszczykowski with long-term injuries; but more because Robert Lewandowski, top scorer with 15 league goals this season, was booked against Zenit and will be suspended for the first leg. Dortmund did little today to make a case as a potential semifinalist - but then again, last season showed it doesn't like to make life easy for itself in this competition.
Either way, both United and Dortmund can consider it a success to have reached this stage of the Champions League. The best they can hope for is to be drawn against each other on Friday.