November 27, 2013 6:20:18 PM PST
By Mark Payne
David Moyes will be more than happy with the response of his team. After the grotesque buffoonery of Cardiff’s late equaliser in the 2-2 draw at the weekend, Manchester United produced their best away performance in Europe in 10 years to embarrass Bayer Leverkusen 5-0.
Central to the performance was the imperious Ryan Giggs, two days short of his 40th birthday and still tearing them apart.
Manchester United’s players wore black armbands to commemorate the recent death of Bill Foulkes, a survivor of the Munich air disaster. Forty-five years ago, Foulkes’s semifinal goal in Madrid put United into their first European Cup final and toward restoration, relief and glory following the 1958 disaster.
The relationship between Manchester United and this competition weighs upon almost every game in the tournament; Giggs knows this only too well. The veteran put in a performance that suggested he is still the best midfielder at the club and clearly relished interchanging passes with Shinji Kagawa.
Bayer Leverkusen, sandwiched between last season’s Champions’ League finalists in their domestic league, in second place, needed a home win to qualify from the group. That provided delicious motivation for the hosts and should have put a United team minus Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie under the microscope. It palpably didn’t.
With those key absences, it seemed as if Manchester United’s world, not for the first time this season, found itself resting on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney. The divisive striker, who must be getting tired after such an abrasive run of domestic and international fixtures, limbered up again. This time he found himself alongside Nani and Kagawa in a team selection that proved inspired.
It was not the most adventurous start from Leverkusen, and they tended to sit back and allow United to come forward. The visitor’s tricky forward line did just that, but it was 15 minutes before they managed to fashion a real chance, Nani’s curler going over the bar.
Shortly afterward, and neat interplay between Kagawa and Giggs found Rooney down on the left. The latter’s cross was met at the back post by Antonio Valencia to put United in the lead. It was a lovely, slick counter-attacking goal — the type of which United’s season has been lacking.
Many of United’s goals have come from dead ball situations and Rooney’s free kicks, direct and indirect, have been particularly deadly this season. That was the source of United’s second, an undefendable in-swinger that the defence was powerless to repel. Eventually the ball found the back of the net after the faintest of touches off Emir Spahic’s head. Chris Smalling was lurking in the vicinity but Rooney was architect, designer and executioner.
Leverkusen had won eight out of their previous 10 home games in the Champions League. By the end of the first half, United were dismantling them casually and a clinical second period finished the job.
United’s corners have improved noticeably since Moyes took over and every time the Red Devils won one the big defenders came up to capitalise. Johnny Evans’s delirious third came from a Patrice Evra knock on and finished the match as a contest. Again Rooney was nearby, this seemed to be a fixture where he would not get the goal his performances deserved.
Another corner and Kagawa lifted the ball over to Rooney who dinked the ball over the keeper for Smalling to put away the fourth. United were not finished yet.
With the clock ticking down, Giggs played this kind of pass that only a professional at the highest level would even contemplate, the ball curling and landing in Nani’s path. The Portuguese winger brought it down delicately with his chest before flicking in the kind of goal that demoralises an opponent for weeks. He may not win hearts and minds every time he plays for United, but Nani on form is a nightmare for opponents.
Giggs is beyond description, he is like the Great Pyramid of Giza of The Colosseum in Rome. A wonder that can only be seen to be believed. He puts men half his age in the shade and can enjoy his birthday cake on Friday. They will need to create new awards to give to this man, such are the unique level of his achievements.
United stormed into a 3-0 lead against Juventus in Turin in 2003 in their previous best away performance, but this was something else. It was United’s biggest ever away win in the Champions League. That’s one record David Moyes has all to himself. For Giggs, there are many more.