David Moyes would not be "a fish in water" at Manchester United, according to José Mourinho, but he is adapting swimmingly to life in the Champions League. United cruised into the knock-out phase with a game to spare as they dismantled Bayer Leverkusen, the second-placed team in Germany, with the finest result and performance of Moyes's reign.
Directed superbly by the ageless Ryan Giggs, and illuminated by the creativity of Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, the Premier League champions routed Sami Hyypia's side with arguably their best European away performance since the 2011 semi-final win at Schalke. It was their biggest away win in the European Cup since defeating Shamrock Rovers 6-0 in 1957 and a significant step in Moyes's development work at Old Trafford.
"I'd say it is the best performance so far because of the clean sheet and five goals," the United manager said. "But I want this to be a regular thing, not just something we do now and again."
First place in Group A will be assured with a point at home to Shakhtar Donetsk on 10 December but that can wait. Moyes will first savour a statement victory by any European standard and one that looks more impressive given the absences in the United ranks and Leverkusen's form coming into the contest.
Hyypia had overseen the club's best start to a Bundesliga season with 10 wins from 13 matches, only the might of Bayern Munich keeping them from the summit, and they faced United seeking a ninth consecutive home win in the Champions League, a proud record stretching over three campaigns. They departed in a dishevelled, sorry state.
United had the injured Michael Carrick and suspended Marouane Fellaini missing from central midfield but that does not detract from the remarkable feat contained within it. Giggs started against formidable opponents two days shy of his 40th birthday, an age when most would struggle to climb the stairs at the refurbished BayArena, and his contribution would have looked good on a 20-year-old.
Giggs was part of the United squad that lost here in the 2002 semi-finals, when Klaus Toppmöller's serial runners-up advanced on away goals before succumbing to Zinedine Zidane's exquisite volley for Real Madrid at Hampden Park. Another member of United's class of 2002 was also present, Sir Alex Ferguson, albeit enjoying the comforts of the VIP section on this occasion. The former United manager would be dragged back in time by Giggs's commanding performance.
Initially it was the composure and authority of the remarkable 39-year-old that stood out for United, wearing black armbands in memory of Bill Foulkes. Leverkusen's three-man attack converged on the visitors' central defence from the opening whistle and Rio Ferdinand was particularly indebted to Giggs for clearing up several loose touches. As Giggs began to break forward with immaculate touch and vision, however, so Moyes's team assumed control. They were within sight of qualification with only a third of the game gone.
United took the lead just as Leverkusen were threatening to dominate. In the space of two minutes Emir Spahic headed over from Gonzalo Castro's corner, Castro shot wastefully high after Jonny Evans allowed a Leverkusen defensive clearance to reach the United area and Stefan Kiessling was denied by the defender's fine interception having beaten Ferdinand easily on the edge of the box.
Seconds later the flow of the game and the mood of the crowd were reversed. From the corner that followed Evans's excellent block on Kiessling, Kagawa dispossessed Stefan Reinartz in central midfield. Enter Giggs. The Welshman was quickly on the scene to take on possession and release Wayne Rooney down the left. Rooney floated an inviting cross into the centre for Kagawa, who failed to connect, as did Emre Can behind him, enabling Antonio Valencia to steal in unmarked to convert at the back post.
Kagawa and Rooney were also instrumental when United doubled their advantage. Reinartz fouled the Japan international down United's left and Rooney swept the resulting free-kick into the heart of the Leverkusen six-yard box. Two defenders rose with Chris Smalling and the ball sailed off the head of Spahic – his eyes closed – into the unguarded half of Bernd Leno's goal.
Moyes' men United remained comfortable, in stark contrast to the frustration running through the Leverkusen ranks. Hyypia's team were clearly unprepared for United's superiority and their own, error-strewn performance; hardly surprising given they last lost at the BayArena in March. They simply could not cope with Rooney and Giggs, who were involved in four and three of the United goals respectively.
Giggs's corner produced the third for Evans, when Patrice Evra flicked on the delivery, Leno saved from Rooney at close range and the Northern Ireland defender bundled the ball home. Number four was a delight, Kagawa flicking the ball through to Rooney inside the area, the striker chipping Leverkusen's overworked keeper and Smalling arriving from an onside position to convert.
The fifth showed Giggs at his most creative. A first-time flick sent Nani clear of the German defence and, having rounded Leno, the winger clipped a nonchalant finish over the line. Leverkusen were left swimming with the fishes, not Moyes.