Martin Samuel: Vintage Giggs is the toast of United

12 March 2009 01:51
When Sir Alex Ferguson retires, when he is being feted around Europe, guest of honour this, very important person that, in the moments when the great and good of the game are gathered around just talking, maybe a nice bottle of red or two on the go, guard down, one question will be asked of him, time and time again.

'So, Sir Alex, you can tell us now. How did you get Ryan Giggs to play like that at the age of 35?'

He's an inspiration: evergreen Giggs gets past Inter Milan's Javier Zanetti

 Manchester Utd 2 Inter 0 (agg 2-0): Ronaldo ends Jose's quest

Manchester Utd 2 Inter 0: The action as it happened at Old Trafford

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Jose Mourinho, the manager of Inter Milan, wished he had the answer last night. So will the rest of the continent as Manchester United continue to encroach on the biggest prize in club football for a second year in succession.

We are used to these episodes of domination in the English game, United on course for a third straight title for the second time under Ferguson; but the modern Champions League is not a tournament that is retained, or at least it never has been.

Certainly not by a player in his professional dotage, who confesses he no longer runs flat out for fear of tweaking a hamstring. Imagine, then, how magnificent Giggs would be if he had his mind for the game now and the engineering of his teenage self.

It is only when Giggs goes up against old contemporaries that the magnificence of his longevity is revealed. Last night it was Patrick Vieira, the former captain of Arsenal, who played the role of Giggs's stooge.

Vieira was deployed by Mourinho to stick with Nemanja Vidic, the United central defender, at set-pieces. That cunning plan lasted three minutes when Vieira lost his opponent not once, but twice, in Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard did a better job when he swept the Ford's Theatre looking for suspicious characters.

Crunch time: Inter Milan's Walter Samuel fouls Cristiano Ronaldo

Vieira is not an old man in modern football terms but he looked every one of his 32 years. Arsenal have not won a trophy since Vieira left and many have questioned manager Arsene Wenger over his decision, but on this evidence there would have been no change of circumstances in North London even had he stayed. What Arsenal miss is the Vieira that was, not the one that is now.

It was 1999 when Vieira's Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Cup semi-final by Giggs in full flow, and what terrifies is that there is still the echo of that player in his performances now.

As team-mate Darren Fletcher identified, he is at his best when running at players through the middle of the pitch, in a manner that is not expected. He started on the left but frequently cut inside and each time his appearance caused consternation. He was always available, always involved and he lasted 90 minutes.

Action hero: Wayne Rooney tackles Inter Milan's Sisenando Maicon

Forward players of his age, like Luis Figo, another Inter veteran, are often required for cameo roles. Not Giggs. He is still a star performer, still a marquee name. How did Ferguson inspire this desire in him? Maybe one day he will reveal his secrets. It promises to be quite a story when he does, and the greatest chapter is still to be written: The Quintuple, and it is on.

This victory may not win the prize for the performance of the week by an English club in Europe, but do not underestimate it. There were flaws, yes, and a 20-minute period when the champions of Europe were far from comfortable but Inter Milan are the finest team in Italy, and this is a notoriously difficult time in the season for European Cup holders.

The last 16 has been the graveyard of champions for those lifting the European crown in the previous four seasons and, having run through it without fear, Ferguson's players can now let their imaginations go wild.

This was a huge test for a club that must soon start to feel the strain of their heroic exertions a year ago in Moscow. Taken to the last game in the Barclays Premier League, taken to the last kick of their European campaign by Chelsea, surely, we think, it must catch up with them?

Another victory and another clean sheet: Edwin Van der Sar

No sign of it here. This was a tremendous challenge, far greater than the previous four champions of Europe have faced at this stage. Yet United were never in danger; not really. There was a brief time when Inter played to their potential and it was unnerving, but a goal after four minutes in each half is a fine way to settle the spirit and, even though Inter hit post and bar, nobody can claim that United were fortunate over two legs.

Michel Platini, the UEFA president, would like the world to believe that English clubs only have to turn up to progress such is their unfair competitive advantage, but episodes such as this expose his assertions as a myth.

Ferguson picked a midfield that has largely dominated the Premier League and ended up having to rearrange it hurriedly before halftime to stay ahead, at which point United were being overrun.

Another reason why teams do not retain the Champions League: one mistake is all it takes. And that is the beauty of it.

Purists may sneer at the concept of teams that are not title holders, of fourth-placed clubs being referred to as Champions, but there is no greatest test of mettle in world football. And Manchester United continue to pass each test.

There will come a time when we will have to believe anything is possible from this amazing squad of players and, with the seemingly immortal Giggs as their inspiration, last night may well be it.

 Manchester Utd 2 Inter 0 (agg 2-0): Ronaldo ends Jose's quest

Manchester Utd 2 Inter 0: The action as it happened at Old Trafford

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Source: Daily_Mail