A couple of early defeats in the English Premiership had persuaded some observers that Manchester United FC were a waning force, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson claimed after their 4-0 home victory over Olympiakos Piraeus FC tonight that this was "the best we have played" this season.
The victory made it a maximum nine points for United in UEFA Champions League Group F, while the high level of skill and incisive attacking football displayed in the opening phase of the game left Sir Alex delighted after the final whistle.
'Best we have played'
"I was very pleased with the first 25 minutes," he said. "It was the best we have played in terms of the pace of the passing and the penetration and that provided the foundation for the result."
In words that will serve as a warning to their opponents that lie in wait as United quicken their challenge, Sir Alex insisted: "We are gradually getting there. Winning helps [this was their fifth successive victory] and getting players back from injury helps as well."
Undoubtedly United were assisted as they took their goals total in the competition to 14 by the dismissal in added time at the end of the first half of Zé Elias following a robust challenge on Juan Sebastián Verón. Their victory already looked assured at that stage but it meant the hosts could see out the second half at a tempo of their own choosing as the ten men of the Greek champions became a dispirited collection.
Playing with just the lone striker Olympiakos' efforts on goal lacked conviction and coach Takis Lemonis admitted they were still feeling the depressive effects of last week's 3-0 defeat against Maccabi Haifa in Nicosia. That was a seismic blow coming immediately after they had stuck six goals past last season's finalists Bayer 04 Leverkusen on Matchday 1.
'Three games left'
"What affected us most at this stage was the match with Maccabi," he said. "With Manchester United you know what you are up against. We have three more games left and we have to try our best in order to achieve anything."
On the night they had no one of the quality of Verón, who has assumed a more commanding role in United's midfield in Roy Keane's absence. Having taken the lead through Ryan Giggs after 19 minutes, the goal Verón scored to make it 2-0 seven minutes later brought the Old Trafford house down, a swift one-two with David Beckham followed by a sublime chip over Dimitrios Eleftheropoulos.
Sir Alex hailed the strike as "a world-class goal," adding: "You won't see a better one across Europe tonight. It was pure audacity to chip the goalkeeper when he had other options to score."
Giggs made it 3-0 on 66 minutes after his low shot needed a deflection from Georgios Anatolakis to squeeze in at the near post, before Ole Gunnar Solskjær completed the rout 13 minutes from time. Leverkusen's 2-0 victory over Maccabi in the group's other match leaves the other three sides on three points and Sir Alex, insisting United still need one more result themselves to ensure their passage to the second group stage, said Olympiakos' fixture in Germany on 23 October will be crucial to their ambitions.
Setting the pace
For now, it is United setting the pace in an unpredictable group, forging impeccably high standards and throwing down the gauntlet to the best of the rest in Europe.
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