Manchester, United Kingdom – In Manchester United manager David Moyes's hour of need, it was two players alleged to have lost faith in him who rode to his rescue.
Hours before the second leg of United's Champions League last 16 tie against Olympiakos on Wednesday, Moyes felt compelled to publicly denounce rumours of rifts with Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie.
The two players were reported to have fallen out with the Scot, but Moyes told MUTV the claims were “rubbish” and the pair rewarded him by inspiring United to a 3-0 victory that took them into Friday's quarter-finals draw.
Van Persie took the plaudits with a hat-trick, but it was Giggs's performance that set the tone on a boisterous evening at Old Trafford.
The 40-year-old Welshman – reported to have been angered by the stories of a bust-up with Moyes Ä was making his first start since January 28, but he patrolled the centre of the pitch with effortless authority.
Not every pass reached its target, but after finding his range with a through ball to Danny Welbeck in the fifth minute, he created both of Van Persie's first two goals with raking balls from the halfway line.
The first led to the 25th-minute penalty from which the Dutchman broke the deadlock. The second, in first-half injury time, enabled Wayne Rooney to cross for Van Persie to level the tie.
Team-mate Phil Jones described the pass to Van Persie in the build-up to the penalty as “exquisite” and Giggs's midfield partner Michael Carrick concurred.
“What's left to say about him?” Carrick said.
“He is just incredible. He comes into a game like that and he hasn't played a lot of football, so to physically be able to do it and get through a game shows how well he looks after himself.
“The ball to Wayne for the second goal was Ä that was just him.”
Moyes said that Van Persie's hat-trick was something that “only several players in the world” could have produced, and he had reason to be thankful for the former Arsenal man's match-winning contribution.
In light of United's domestic struggles, which have seen them fall 18 points off the pace in the Premier League, Moyes had found his position under scrutiny in the build-up to the game.
Thursday's edition of The Sun claimed that the comeback against Olympiakos had “kept Moyes in a job”, and the common consensus was that the result had bought him time but nothing more.
The Daily Mirror said that Moyes was “hanging in there”, while for the BBC, “United's win releases the pressure valve, but only temporarily”.
United visit West Ham United in the league on Saturday before hosting Manchester City on Tuesday and a performance in either game akin to last Sunday's 3-0 loss at home to Liverpool will see doubts quickly resurface.
United's fans gave their side vociferous support throughout the game against Olympiakos, but Andy Mitten, editor of the United We Stand fanzine, warned beforehand that their patience was wearing thin.
“Up until a month ago, there was a lot of support for David Moyes, but that has changed,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
The club's board, meanwhile, will be reluctant to hand Moyes a reported £150 million ($249 million, 179 million euros) transfer budget without more enduring evidence of progress.
United's league position – 12 points below the top four – means that they may need to win the Champions League just to qualify for next season's tournament.
Teams like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain all pack a far greater punch than Olympiakos, but Carrick says that United will approach the quarter-final draw with no trepidation.
“It's brilliant. It's the place to be,” said the England midfielder.
“There are some big teams in there and you can't pick an easy team. Every one of them looks strong and we look forward to seeing who we get.” – Sapa-AFP