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Welsh wizard still magic

Under a month before his 35th birthday, Ryan Giggs chose the closing moments of Manchester United's Champions League tie against Celtic to remind the world that, when you have his experience and ability, age ain't nothing but a number.

Just as United looked to be running out of ideas as to how to break down a seemingly impenetrable Celtic defence, Giggs was quickest to react to Artur Boruc's failure to hold Cristiano Ronaldo's stinging shot. Thinking faster than anyone else, the Welshman nodded in to preserve his club's unbeaten run and secure a point which almost certainly guarantees the European champions a place in the knockout stage.

Though a seemingly routine finish, Giggs' goal was a tribute to the benefits of forward-thinking and a reminder of how much the veteran still has to offer. Post-match, the United captain spoke of the importance of following in Ronaldo's shots. In his own words, 'it fell to me and I headed it in' but there was more to it than that for a man who, sixteen years ago, played in United's first-ever Champions League game.

Giggs has come a long way since his early days when, as a spindly teenager, his youth team games were appointment viewing for Sir Bobby Charlton. He made his debut for United as a 17-year-old in March 1991 and scored his first goal against Manchester City two months later. Before he was twenty, he had won a Premier League title. Aged 25, he was a European champion.

In almost ten years since United's magical night in Barcelona, Giggs has continued to add to his collection of medals but an equally impressive achievement has come in more recent times, as he has successfully reinvented his game, transitioning from a winger into a probing central midfielder. In the early weeks of the current season, Sir Alex Ferguson spoke of his intention to use Giggs centrally, indicating that his days of charging up and down the left wing were largely over. Instead, said the only club manager the Welshman has ever known, the veteran would be utilised in a central role, pulling the strings alongside energetic partners who could do some of his running for him.

Since moving inside, Giggs has made a key impact in a number of games. Against Aalborg and Everton, his defence-splitting passes led to goals. In the third round of the Carling Cup, Middlesbrough were beaten when he took advantage of Chris Riggott's slip to fire the winning goal. Against Celtic, though he edged out to the left in the second half as United's push for an equaliser became more and more desperate, he was centrally positioned to convert his chance with six minutes left.

A measure of Giggs' impact for United this season is that, along with Darren Fletcher, he has helped cushion the blow caused by the absences of varying length of Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes and Anderson. Fletcher is enjoying arguably his most impressive run of form as a United player alongside Giggs, whose ability to play penetrating forward passes has provided those in front of him a regular supply line from which attacks have developed.

The value that Giggs has shown this season is a continuation of his play at the conclusion of the last campaign. Back in May, his goal against Wigan Athletic in the rain at the JJB Stadium put the seal on United's championship. Ten days later in Moscow, on the occasion that he passed Charlton as his club's all-time appearances leader, he again came off the bench at a key moment.

John Terry's head denied him a winning goal in extra time at the Luzhniki Stadium but Giggs did find the net in the subsequent shootout, United's last penalty in an epic final. In its aftermath, he admitted that he was keen to soak in the moments of celebration more than he had nine years earlier. It was an admission that he was aware that his time at the top of the game was coming to an end. Since then, however, he has done much to suggest that he has more than a few miles remaining yet on his tyres.

Giggs may no longer be an automatic choice when Ferguson has a fully-fit squad at his disposal but a measure of his continued importance is likely to be seen in the form of a new contract. His current Old Trafford deal expires at the end of this season and it seems certain that his career will be extended by at least one more year.

While his playing days slowly wind down, Giggs is working towards his coaching badges and a future helping bring through United's next generations, should he choose it, looks to be inevitable. Until then, those youngsters taking the path he did almost two decades ago can continue to learn from his deeds and example on and off the field, as he writes one final chapter in one of the most glorious careers club football has ever seen.


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