Evergreen Giggs continues to shine
Dimitar Berbatov is rarely described as animated. Indeed, the caricature of the Manchester United striker is that neither face nor body moves. At Stoke on Saturday, Berbatov broke into a smile and a sprint at the same time, the natural delight of a goalscorer accompanied by a desire to attribute credit where it was due. Running towards the left wing, pointing at the provider, his gratitude to Ryan Giggs was clear.
His sentiments are being shared by increasing numbers of others. One banner at the Britannia Stadium said: "Arise Sir Ryan Giggs". Written before the Welshman marked his first 22 minutes on the pitch with assists for Berbatov and John O'Shea in United 2-0's win, it is a cause that is gaining currency.
In Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, the club already has a pair of knights. For Giggs OBE, recognition for a lifetime's work appeared to have arrived in April, when he was crowned Player of the Year by his peers. It had a valedictory feel; despite his magisterial performance in the January win against Chelsea, he had only started 12 Premier League games in the season. The obvious expectation was that a 35-year-old would figure less frequently in the future.
Instead, Giggs has now become the early front-runner for another award. At this formative stage of the season, he is among its most influential performers, playing a pivotal part in a quartet of invaluable victories, against Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Stoke. While in the Champions League against Wolfsburg he netted his 150th goal for the club and added another assist for Michael Carrick's winner.
He has an official total of six assists in those five games, but an involvement in ten goals is a greater indication of his influence. Against Arsenal, his pass enabled Wayne Rooney to win a penalty, while his free-kick was accidentally converted by Abou Diaby for what proved the winner. At White Hart Lane, it was a perfectly placed Giggs free kick that brought the equaliser.
During the derby, his role in Rooney's opener was, admittedly, small, with a quick throw; the next three goals, however, were fashioned by a craftsman. Darren Fletcher headed in two balls from the left wing before Michael Owen, the recipient of an impeccable pass, scored the injury-time winner.
It illustrated that Giggs is capable of bisecting a defence with one ball while a set-piece expertise that has been obscured for several years has ensured Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kicks have not been missed. The Portuguese liked to operate with a flamboyant flourish; as Giggs showed when setting Berbatov up with a deceptively simple pass, making things look easy is a skill in itself.
That is one of Giggs' gifts. Other 35-year-olds can labour when running; he is blessed with the kind of natural fitness that gives his game a freshness. He no longer ranks among the game's sprinters, though that merely added to Micah Richards' difficulties in the derby. The younger Giggs would have had the acceleration to wave the right-back farewell on his way past; the footballing pensioner did not need to escape Richards. He simply beat him for a second occasion. The flecks of grey around the winger's temples may have added to the defender's embarrassment as Giggs jinked away from him again.
Speed was his original forte. If it is now skill, it is a sign of an ability to reinvent himself. Once a fixture on the left flank, he has been a second striker, a deep-lying central midfielder, a right winger, though this season has brought him full circle with a return to his old territory.
Minus Ronaldo, Giggs is now much the best option on the wings. Nani offers ingenuity, but can infuriate. Antonio Valencia, like a younger Giggs, has the pace without always providing the delivery. Ji-sung Park's game is based more on high energy than high quality. Yet there is a tendency for many of football's senior citizens to retreat to the centre of the pitch, rather than returning to the touchline as Giggs has.
It means that, apart from Ronaldo's remarkable final three seasons at Old Trafford and a couple of years when Andrei Kanchelskis was in his electrifying prime, he is likely to end his career having been United's premier winger for three-quarters of a two-decade career at Old Trafford.
Yet it is one that could have been curtailed several years ago. Giggs' brace against Juventus in 2003, an undoubted highlight of even his career, came at a time when Ferguson was pursuing first Damien Duff and then Arjen Robben. Chelsea's superior purchasing power then may be benefiting United now.
Familiarity can prevent appreciation. That may have been an issue in the third quarter of Giggs' time in the United team. Now, however, it has brought a belated sense of admiration, perhaps because each year has a deceptive sense of finality. This is the fourth successive season that threatens to prove the Indian summer of Giggs' career.
In 2006-07 as United won their first title for four years, he was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award; the following campaign, he equalled Charlton's appearance record by scoring in the game that clinched the Premier League and passed it in the Champions League final, converting United's final penalty in the shootout; last season, of course, brought Giggs the elusive PFA prize. This could yet bring a repeat for the oldest winger in town. As a teenage prodigy, he started out being compared to George Best; given his longevity, Giggs may be 21st century football's answer to Stanley Matthews now.