At times, very rarely, football offers moments when form goes out of the window, predictions are disregarded and expectations are forgotten in the blink of an eye, giving way to an unpredictable, yet exhilarating, 90 minutes.
That, in a nutshell, sums up United’s trip to Leverkusen, for not even the most optimistic of Reds – a species growing increasingly rare in recent times – would have envisaged the superb performance David Moyes’ men offered tonight as they put Bayer Leverkusen to the sword in swashbuckling fashion.
It’d be easy to say that the signs were there for all to see ahead of tonight and that this sort of performance could have been expected.
The truth is, though, that United arrived in Germany on the back of one of their worst performances of the season and with a decimated squad, which meant Moyes had to rely on a man two days short of his 40th birthday and a half-fit centre-back-cum-midfield-enforcer to neutralise Leverkusen and ensure United had enough in their tank to become the first team to win in the Champions League at the BayArena in eight games.
In fairness, considering the injuries that had limited his already limited options even further, David Moyes’ picked his best and boldest XI and was handsomely rewarded, on a bitterly cold night in Leverkusen.
Ryan Giggs might not longer have the consistency he did a few years ago but, when on song, the soon to be 40-year-old remains a pleasure to watch and a player still capable of making United tick, while it’s hard to accuse Moyes of employing defensive tactics, given he opted for Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Wayne Rooney tonight.
The start could have hardly been more positive, with Shinji Kagawa – finally deployed in his favourite number 10 from the start, as Robin Van Persie’s injury meant Wayne Rooney was pushed further up the pitch – picked up the ball in his own half before feeding Ryan Giggs, whose pass found Rooney, allowing the England striker to delivered a perfect floated ball to the back post.
Nine times out of 10 this season, that ball would have dribbled into the keeper’s arms but tonight it found the out-stretched foot of Antonio Valencia, who decided that, occasionally, a right winger can even provide an attacking threat and put United 1-0 up after 22 minutes.
Eight minutes later United doubled their lead as Emir Spahic generously turned Rooney’s free-kick into his own net in an attempt to deny Chris Smalling a free header, sending the away end into a raucous cauldron of thoroughly unexpected joy.
Those who expected United to fold like a deck chair after halftime were left disappointed, as the Reds continued in the same ruthless, and pleasingly surprised, fashion, with Kagawa and Giggs orchestrating the midfield to perfection, while Valencia looked like a man who’s spent the flight to Germany memorising videos of Andrei Kanchelskis, such was the Ecuadorian’s intent and purpose to get past his marker.
Rooney and Nani combined but the Portuguese dragged his shot just wide of the post, before Leverkusen were to be denied by the post in one of their rare excursions in the United’s half – the Germans are second in the Bundesliga and we can only assume they were exceptionally bad tonight, or else Bayern Munich can already pop the champagne open – before Rooney’s curling shot fizzled past the post, just after the hour mark.
The United striker was again in superb form, combining superbly with Kagawa, Nani and Valencia and showing the sort of intent and desire he seemed to have forgotten last season.
With 66 minutes played, Giggs corner found Patrice Evra - now officially United’s biggest threat off corners – unmarked in the box. The Frenchman’s header was turned goalwards by Rooney, and while Bernd Leno saved the initial effort, Jonny Evans turned the rebound into the net, all but securing the three points and United’s place in the knockout stage of the competition.
The Reds, however, were not done yet and roared on by the goading chants of “Can we play you every week?” emanating from the away end, scored again soon after, as Kagawa’s superb dink pass found Rooney, who chipped the ball over Leno, allowing Smalling to tap it into the empty net, thus automatically ensuring his place in a football-based pub quiz – which two United defenders scored on a famous away win in the Champions League?
As if to add insult to injury, Ashley Young and Anderson replaced Rooney and Valencia, before Giggs’ superb pass found Nani, who calmly rounded Leno, before slotting the ball home to seal United’s biggest ever win away from home in the Champions League and providing David Moyes with a timely boost ahead of Sunday’s trip to White Hart Lane.
Tonight’s result won’t prove to be the cure to United’s malaise, but it’s definitely an excellent tonic ahead of the next few weeks and, hopefully, a springboard for the future.
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Tags: Match Reports