It was almost a microcosm of Manchester United's season. Three goals up, David Moyes had only just stopped punching the air like a man on death row who'd been afforded the reprieve of a power cut, when Robin Van Persie, his hat-trick hero—nay, saviour—went down clutching his left knee against Olympiakos.
Against all the odds, United are one of the Champions League's last eight teams, but they are there without Van Persie. As has been the case so often this season: one step forward, two steps back.
Moyes' reaction upon hearing of Van Persie's diagnosis was presumably one of dismay and frustration, after initially playing down the severity of the injury, per Paul Gorst of Mirror Football. The United striker will now miss both Champions League quarter-final ties against Bayern Munich through a knee injury which will sideline him for up to six weeks.
Despite his somewhat chequered season, Van Persie is still the most potent player United has, scoring 11 goals in just 17 starts. And with the German and European champions looming in next week's first leg, Man Utd need their best players to be on top form. On the face of it, the task will be that much tougher without the Dutch striker.
The 3-0 defeat to Liverpool a week ago was the nadir of Moyes' tenure as United manager thus far. For the first time, solid speculation over the security of his job swirled over Old Trafford the next morning. Failure to overturn the two-goal deficit against Olympiakos could well have sealed the envelope on the Scot's P45.
But it's easy to overlook the two results—and more importantly, the performances—that sandwich the humbling loss to Liverpool. Sure, the big games are the ones that matter most, but the three goals conceded to Brendan Rodgers' side are the only goals United have conceded in their last five Premier League games, with wins over West Brom and West Ham among United's best performances of an otherwise dismal campaign.
So what's the common denominator of these two games? A general lack of Van Persie.
At Upton Park, Man Utd's fans were given a glimpse of what life without Van Persie might be like. But here's the thing: It wasn't that bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Moyes' side turned in, arguably, their most complete display of the season, with the front three of Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata clicking in a way that had only been envisaged until that point.
Then there was the 3-0 win over West Brom, which of course, Van Persie started. Yet United were only 1-0 up when the Dutch striker was withdrawn by Moyes through fear of seeing him sent off. The introduction of Danny Welbeck opened up the pitch, stretching the play as Man Utd went on to score twice more.
Of course, United don't necessarily want to stretch the play against Bayern Munich, but Welbeck would give them more of an outlet on the counter-attack than Van Persie could. Moyes will have to accept his team will be without the ball for much of the game and find a way to maximise possession.
Would Moyes be able to accommodate both Rooney and Van Persie against such a strong midfield force like Bayern Munich? It seems unlikely. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, in all his wisdom, dropped one of the two (in that case, Rooney) for the quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid last season.
Considering how Pep Guardiola has transplanted the same Barcelona carousel that passed United ragged in the 2011 Champions League final into his new Bayern side, fielding two out-and-out strikers would be a reckless move by Moyes. Van Persie alongside Rooney was never an option, even ignoring the former's injury layoff.
Instead, it seems likely that Rooney will start in the No. 9 role, dropping back to help out in midfield, with Welbeck moving across the front line from the left and Antonio Valencia surging down the right.
Just as they did on Saturday, Manchester United have a chance to show that a future without Van Persie might not be so bad. And that's something that Moyes might have to start planning for sooner rather than later.
There have been hints of disgruntlement from Van Persie at United this season. The 30-year-old has insisted that he sees his future at Old Trafford, but like a troubled poet, his gruff stubble is just long enough to suggest a sense of personal torment.
OK, so I might be reading too much into his shaving habits, but reports have claimed Van Persie is giving thought to his future at the club, per Jamie Jackson of The Guardian, with a clause said to exist in his contract that would allow him to leave United should they finish outside the top four, according to Wayne Veysey of Goal).
Van Persie is rumoured to be unhappy with Moyes' training-ground methods, attributing them to the injury problems he has endured this season, according to Veysey. So when he hailed Dutch national team boss Louis Van Gaal, a man linked with United as Moyes' potential replacement, as "a fantastic coach," per Sam Lee of Goal, it was taken by some as a vote of no confidence in his current manager.
Of course, if United are presented with a golden opportunity to find the net against Bayern, Van Persie would ordinarily be the guy to take it, not Welbeck. But would that chance arise in the first place with Van Persie, instead of Welbeck, on the pitch?
United are a more cautious team under Moyes. As a result, less chances are being created for the forwards, and Van Persie is having to fend for himself, creating his own opportunities. And that has never been his game.
Moyes has to find answers to a number of pressing questions before the start of next season, one of which concerns the selection dilemma he faces in attack. Can he crowbar Adnan Januzaj, Mata, Rooney, Van Persie and Welbeck all into the same team?
Taking this into account, if Moyes can find a buyer for Van Persie in the summer, he might be tempted to offload the Dutch striker. Because as it turns out, Man Utd might actually be better off without him.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!