This was, by some margin, the greatest night in David Moyes's career as manager of Manchester United. Given that things have been going so badly recently that glancing down and realizing he's put his shoes on the right feet must come as a relief, that might sound like damning with faint praise, but overhauling a two-goal deficit is an achievement worth celebrating - even if it took a genuinely dreadful performance to go down 2-0 to Olympiakos in the first leg. A 3-0 victory showed character and more attacking spark than United have demonstrated all year, and a hat-trick from Robin van Persie suggested reports of his decline may have been exaggerated.
It would be misleading, though, to suggest all is well. Olympiakos had chances. David De Gea made a stunning double save in the first half, blocking David Fuster's header and then scrambling to his feet and kicking away Chori Dominguez's follow up. Enzo Perez put header after header wide. After going 3-0 up, United sat back but never quite stifled the game, leaving themselves vulnerable to the away goal. But at least it was a win, and one that means that United still has a chance -- however academic that may feel -- of winning a trophy this season. More than anything, in the darkness it was a gleam of light. "This is a great result," Wayne Rooney told Sky. "Hopefully it can kickstart our season and be the start of something really special."
Of late, each week seems to have brought a new low, another setback to raise doubts. When United appointed Moyes, the board promised it would show patience and he would be given time, which is why he was given a six-year contract. Fans, or at least those who go to games, have largely honored that: there has been some booing, but very little direct abuse turned on Moyes. Yet even the most devout must be beginning to wonder: patience is all very well, but there must at least be some sign of progress or a plan, a flicker of encouragement. For the past month, unless anybody really thought the labored 3-0 win at struggling West Bromwich Albion was a meaningful step forward, there has just been an accumulation of bad news.
The away game in Olympiakos was the beginning of the sharp downturn, a performance that was both witless and gutless and led to the first real doubts about Van Persie's commitment. The 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool, when United conceded three penalties and could easily have conceded five, was a new nadir. Old Trafford was noisier than it has been in some time, but that only highlighted the lack of fight on the pitch. The psychology of players is a fragile and complex phenomenon, but it was hard not to wonder how many were, if not playing for a move, then at least wondering whether they really wanted to be associated with the decline and fall of the most successful club in the history of the English league.
The bad news kept coming. First, rumours of a bust-up between Ryan Giggs and Moyes. That has been denied, but there have been countless reports of players, used to Ferguson and success, resisting Moyes and his methods, effectively to use a phrase that has gained vogue among United fans, turning round, and saying, "You're not my real dad."
Then there was Tweet from Kevin Sheedy, a coach at Everton's academy who worked under Moyes, in which he suggested the United boss, about whose reputation for developing young players much was made when he took charge at Old Trafford, had paid virtually no attention to the youth team. In some ways it was a minor story - although the fact that the mild-mannered Sheedy had said something so inflammatory seemed instructive - but the way it was seized upon did suggest just how powerful the negative momentum against Moyes is.
And then, on Tuesday, came the whispers that Louis van Gaal, currently coach of the Netherlands but keen to get a job lined up for next season, has been sounded about possibly replacing Moyes next season. "I'm not feeling any pressure from inside the club," Moyes insisted. "Everybody's fine. They know the job I've got to do - it's probably bigger than the one we thought we had."
Whatever the truth of the stories about Giggs, 40 now, his beard more grey than black, he was selected to start for the first time since the end of January, and responded with a superb performance. Such is the way of things at United at the moment, though, that in incisiveness of his passing only served to highlight how mundane the center of United's midfield has been for most of this season. The pass that led to Van Persie being bundled over for the penalty was sensational in both conception and execution, and it was Giggs whose pass laid in Rooney to set up the second.
Rooney also had a good night, and the value of Danny Welbeck and the way his pace unsettles defenders was clear. It was the two of them who combined for the free-kick from which Van Perise completed his hat-trick, the goalkeeper Roberto wrong-footing himself by hopping to his left as Van Persie flashed a shot two yards to his right. "We looked to get behind them," Moyes said. "We ran and the players were incredibly committed. They're hurting as well. They know we're not doing as well as we should be doing and we certainly didn't play well in Olympiakos. Tonight they've put it right. We deserved it."
Typically, given how Moyes's luck has gone, Van Persie ended up leaving the field on a stretcher, seemingly in a deal of pain, although it appears to be no more than a bang on the knee.
This might not have been a comeback of the magnitude of the 3-0 win against Barcelona in the Cup-Winners Cup 30 years ago this week, not least because this Olympiakos is nowhere near as good as that Barcelona, but Moyes has at least written a page of United history that will be remembered with pride. Temporarily at least, the pressure is lifted and there are signs of life at Old Trafford.