Manchester United 4 Derby County 0: Giggs' 100th shows value of endeavour
How do you leave the Theatre of Dreams with a career record of eight straight defeats against Manchester United - having just watched your team dwindle to the point where they inhabited a nightmare shooting gallery - yet still manage to conjure more than a little of the aura of a winner?
It is by the jut of your jaw and, rather more importantly, the noises you make. Paul Jewell, his appetite for football revived after his epic survival stint at Wigan, passed these tests with some style before joining his long-time persecutor Sir Alex Ferguson for an after-match drink.
He did not whinge about that huge disparity of resources reflected in the quality of the marksmen peppering his goalkeeper, Stephen Bywater - Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. He did not say he would have had as much chance of glory against a crack armoured division.
What he said was really meant for the ears of his players and if by any chance the message was mislaid, no doubt it will be repeated at some length over the next few days.
Jewell said players like Rooney and Ryan Giggs, still a vital, game-changing force despite his advancing years, were great players not just because of their natural-born skills. You didn't get to be a major player solely because of something given to you in the cradle.
You make it for yourself, you run back half the length of the pitch to reclaim the ball, as Rooney did on one spectacular occasion, and you keep making the moves into the most dangerous positions, as the 34-year-old Giggs did in the 40th minute to first punish a Derby defence which, though increasingly drawing on good fortune, had battled with tremendous gameness before Bywater spilled a shot from Ronaldo.
It was the Welshman's 100th league goal for United. He was joining a club of just 11 whose elite membership include George Best, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and Mark Hughes. However, this was not so much a statistical milestone as another reflection of a superior football culture - one that has, from Sir Matt Busby to Ferguson, always insisted that even the most magical talent will never be a ticket for an easy ride.
Jewell made another impressive point. Avoiding relegation was, he said, unquestionably a major objective but he didn't see his new job simply in such narrow terms.
"If we go down, it won't affect my main ambition - that is to make a team which can compete," he said.
Whether Jewell, even with some inspired work in the January transfer window, has the time or the financial backing to make a serious run for survival in what is left of this season must carry a huge question mark. Certainly when United finally broke through, and two goals from Tevez and a Ronaldo penalty followed as inevitably as a sunrise, there was no disguising Derby's paucity of raw talent.
United were occupying an entirely different planet and Ferguson soon enough recovered from the unwelcome disappearance of Owen Hargreaves after he pulled a calf muscle in the warm-up.
Inconvenienced by an ambush at Bolton, and bitterly upset by what he judged to be a lack of protection by a match officials, Ferguson was made much more relaxed by the sight of his team reminding inferior opposition that they were indeed the reigning champions.
No doubt his post-prandial digestive was made all the more satisfying by news of Liverpool's pratfall at Reading, a reminder that titles are won as much by the efficiency produced against the bottom end of the Premier League as in the kind of crunch against Rafa Benitez's men scheduled for next weekend.
Though Derby were ill-equipped to apply anything more than the flimsiest examination, this was an imperious United. Rooney had some frustrating moments, especially when he was obliged to push to the left with the arrival of Louis Saha in place of Giggs, but the thread of his commitment was never broken.
He proved it with that dash back to rescue a ball than had slipped out of his possession, and then he had to choke back his disappointment when an exquisite chip smacked against the crossbar. Rooney did not get a goal but his presence was rarely less than vital, a fact that seemed just that little bit more evident when he discarded his black gloves at half-time. What was a boy from Croxteth doing wearing gloves in the first place? It was a question that provoked less indignation after his reminder that few players on the planet are capable of producing quite such instant inspiration - and urgency.
Another side of the champions' greed for meaningful action came when Ronaldo had to fight off the challenge of Saha and Tevez when he picked up the ball after he had been brought down by Derby's Tyrone Mears for the penalty. The Argentine would have liked to complete his hat-trick, Saha would simply have liked to score, but Ronaldo was unmoved. There are more diligent, and economic, workers on the team, but his relevance is becomimg more regular, more systematic.
The third member of the triumvirate, Tevez, is also growing. His achievements for West Ham last season were as remarkable as they were controversial and at Old Trafford he is showing something more than mere ball skill and a fine eye for goal. His sheer good-heartedness is becoming more apparent with each new game.
Against all of this Derby County fans, who before the game uttered their time-encrusted chant, "We're Derby, We're Crap," were entitled to head home in a suicidal depression. However, Steve Howard scored a rare goal, the result of impressive persistence against the red tide, and then there was the reaction of the new manager. Derby's fear of the outer darkness may yet be soothed.
Goals: Giggs (40) 1-0. Tevez (45) 2-0. Tevez (60) 3-0. Howard (76) 3-1. Ronaldo pen (90) 4-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2) Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand (O'Shea, 71), Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Anderston (Fletcher, 62), Giggs (Saha, 64); Rooney, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Nani.
Derby County (4-1-4-1) Bywater; Griffin, Moore, Davis, McEveley (Howard, 46); Leacock; Oakley, Fagan (Mears, 46), Barnes (Teale, 61), Pearson; Miller. Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Earnshaw.
Referee: C. Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Derby Davis, Griffin.
Man of the match: Tevez.
Attendance: 75, 725.