Record-breaking Giggs still shining
It began against Everton, three weeks shy of 22 years ago. Denis Irwin was injured and a pre-knighthood Alex Ferguson sent for the teenager on his bench, sending him on for a debut that doubled up as a baptism of fire. He recalled being buffeted by the grizzled defender Dave Watson, operating as half of an unlikely strike partnership of Danny Wallace.
And so the footballing life of Ryan Giggs started. Fast forward from his first game to his 929th and Everton were again the opposition. Another milestone should bring another medal. The man for all seasons extended his record for scoring in every Premier League campaign into a 21st year and, almost certainly, secured a 13th title of his never-ending career.
That promises to be unlucky for Manchester City, 12 points behind with 12 games to go. Manchester United are exorcising the ghosts of last season. A late capitulation against Everton helped cost them their crown then. There was no repeat.
If Phil Jones was selected to shadow Marouane Fellaini, who had assumed a status as their nemesis, others were chosen after Southampton defeated City. "I was going to make seven changes," said Ferguson, who settled for four. "This was an opportunity for us to get a real comfortable lead."
There was also a warning, of Ferguson's famous hairdryer being plugged in, should they blow another lead in the title race. It spurred the senior citizen into action. Where Giggs led, others followed: Nemanja Vidic, a picture of full-blooded commitment in defence; Robin van Persie, back on the scoresheet to complete the set after netting against each of the rest of the top six; Rafael da Silva, a bundle of energy as he overshadowed Leighton Baines in the battle of the attacking full-backs.
In the process, Ferguson defeated one potential successor, David Moyes, while being watched by another, Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese is unlikely to have departed petrified - Real Madrid merit the billing of favourites for their Champions League clash - but United mastered the art of winning Premier League games and this, ultimately, was one of their more comfortable victories.
Scarred by Everton's comeback last year, however, Ferguson took few precautions. He withdrew Wayne Rooney into midfield for the second half and, until he hobbled off, designated Jones to man-mark Fellaini. "Felli couldn't get any space between the back four and the midfield," Moyes said. "We ended up pulling him wide to try and get the shackles off him."
Giggs, in comparison, has long been excelled at being elusive. A sprightly presence, his game began with a flick and a trick and ended it tracking back in the 93rd minute. "His energy and enthusiasm for the game is just incredible," Ferguson said. "At 38 years of age... or is he 39? Maybe 40, I don't know, but he's up and down that pitch all day."
He is officially 39 and now the Premier League's third oldest scorer. His pursuit of first Dean Windass and then Teddy Sheringham continued as Giggs rolled a shot in off the post after Van Persie had defeated Johnny Heitinga all too easily.
The second came courtesy of the marauding Rafael, who picked out Van Persie with an incisive pass. It nevertheless amounted to redemption for the Dutchman. It was the second time he jinked past Tim Howard and shot on his less favoured foot. His earlier effort, following Rooney's defence-splitting past, struck the post. At the second attempt, he managed a first goal in three games. A drought, by Van Persie's standards, if few others', was over.
"That was the killer for them," said Ferguson, pleased his lead was doubled on the stroke of half-time. Jonny Evans, in an almighty scramble, Tom Cleverley, with a stinging shot, and Van Persie, when supplied by Giggs, could have added to it. Yet the significant statistic was not the scoreline, but the margin of their advantage over City. "Twelve points against a club like Manchester United is a big gap to make up," said Moyes. Too big, in all probability.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Nemanja Vidic - United's defensive record is unimpressive this season but it would surely have been better had the captain stayed fit. While Everton had comparatively few efforts on David de Gea's goal, the dependable Vidic was a reason why. One first-half block, from Kevin Mirallas' shot, was especially important.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: There is no catching them now. Their next five league games are against teams in the bottom half of the table and this has proved a wonderful weekend for them. If Vidic is up to two games in four days, there is a case for picking him alongside Rio Ferdinand in Madrid. Michael Carrick, another probable starter, came off the bench. United will monitor Evans, who had cramp, and Jones, who picked up a calf injury, to see if they are fit to figure in Spain. The Englishman added another dimension to the midfield with his physical power.
EVERTON VERDICT: As Moyes said, they had plenty of possession but comparatively few chances. Leon Osman twice threatened from long range in the first half and De Gea parried a late Nikica Jelavic shot but there was no comeback this time. Victor Anichebe, preferred to Jelavic in attack, was ineffective, but their problems came at the other end. Moyes was bemused at the high defensive line Everton adopted for the second goal and the ill, and speedy, Sylvain Distin was missed. When Heitinga erred for Giggs' strike, it was the fifth consecutive goal Everton conceded that was at least partly his fault.