James Lawton: Giggs the cunning architect of United win
Published 12/01/2009 | 01:26
Rafa Benitez no doubt knew it all the time but if anyone, anywhere, had been too deeply influenced by his burst of counter-propaganda, here we had the reality of Manchester United's pursuit of a hat-trick of Premier League titles.
Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't do it entirely with what might be described as football's ultimate dirty tricks campaign.
He also spends quite a bit of time assembling players not only of huge talent but also of deeply competitive character. Players like, most notably in this evisceration of Chelsea's claims for a serious place in the race between United and Liverpool, Ryan Giggs.
Along with Paul Scholes, the 35-year-old Welshman is widely believed to be heading for his last run at the glory. But then if ever Giggs feels a forlorn tug of longing for those days of his bounding and brilliant youth, a performance like this is surely a matter of the deepest satisfaction. The legs aren't so quick and the reflexes are maybe not so sharp, but in the matter of understanding the dynamics of a match that simply has to be won, Giggs remains in an exclusive class indeed.
This was especially evident in the moments just before half-time when he helped lift United on to an entirely superior level of effort and performance. Before the eruption, Benitez had reason to hope that he might survive a little more profitably the weekend of psychological warfare that had appeared to have drifted away from him with the disappointment of a goalless draw at Stoke. United, despite the alarming failure of Chelsea to strike anything like the routine force which was their stock in trade under the command of the watching Jose Mourinho, were making very little headway.
However, the referee Howard Webb ruled out a United goal that was certainly cunning but legal in every respect. Giggs raced up not to take a corner but carry on a move initiated by his team Wayne Rooney when he casually stroked the ball out of the corner quadrant and walked away from the action. Giggs crossed and Cristiano Ronaldo headed in and the officials said that the corner was illegal. Ferguson gave the smallest indication of a smile when he was told later that Rooney hadn't told the linesman he had taken the corner. "He didn't have to," said Ferguson, whose humour had been enormously improved by the fact that Giggs, in the way of superior veterans, had simply got on with the business of retaking the corner, from which Nemanja Vidic promptly scored.
Later Giggs dismissed the idea that the rest of the 3-0 exercise was about destroying the confidence of Chelsea as they contemplate the rest of the season.
That confidence, he might have said, appeared to be in tatters even before United began to find some impressive rhythm in the second half. Instead, he stressed the vital need of United to build some self-belief for themselves. "You don't really think about how this is affecting the other team," said Giggs. "You just enjoy the fact that you own confidence is growing."
Long before the killing strokes were delivered by Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, United were indeed beginning to look again like a team who had returned to a mood that might produce some serious title-marching.
However, under the most serious analysis it was maybe not a triumph guaranteed to fill Anfield with too much alarm. Yes, United displayed plenty of virtuosity towards the end – even the extraordinarily brittle temperament of Cristiano Ronaldo had steadied to the point where he was producing almost as many points of danger as tantrums, but there was certainly an uneven quality to much of the performance.
It was as though Chelsea's desperate uncertainties had dragged United down from any expectation that they might be required to produce anything like the kind of commitment and nerve and fluency that went into the Champions League-winning performance in the spring.
United's commitment department certainly wasn't overstaffed in the first half – and as they toiled to make any kind of impact, there were those familiar cries for the burrowing drive of Carlos Tevez.
The Argentine quite shamelessly milked the impasse, clapping the Old Trafford fans and holding his heart, perhaps in some kind of unsubtle commentary on what had been going on. Much later, and still wearing his tracksuit, Tevez was wearing a rather more pensive expression as such as Rooney and Berbatov began to look as though they were in much less dire need of an introduction.
His disappointment was no doubt also Liverpool's concern.
When Ronaldo, Rooney andBerbatov struck up the levels of understanding that eventually separated the teams so profoundly, there was simply no market for the selfless and so often valuable work of Tevez. Here, surely, is a force equipped to make a sustained impact on the title race and that Liverpool belief they can stay on at the front.
Whether it is now installed as smoothly, and as permanently as Ferguson later suggested, is of course a still open question. United might also ponder the lack of midfield rhythm which seemed to be a direct consequence at times of Michael Carrick's absence. Of course there was Giggs, waspish, defying the years and in the most crucial moments supplying the vital edge of confidence, but until the virtual collapse of Chelsea as a seriously competitive unit, there was still a sense that United had known much more coherent days.
Giggs carried the day, as Scholes might have done in similar circumstances. But maybe United do need some harder evidence that younger, much more expensive, men are about to strike new levels of consistency. Without that, United cannot believe that yesterday's move was necessarily anything more than a passing advantage.
The reigning champions do need to show a wider authority. They need less rage and few more moments of brilliant clarity from Wayne Rooney. They need Berbatov to integrate himself a little more regularly – and Ronaldo to prove that he isn't going to spend most of the rest of his days in Manchester in the missing genius file.
Given all this, United should do it easily enough. But then, as Benitez might say, there is still to time to fight the apparently invincible foe.