Football: Giggs naturally steals the show

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Manchester United. . . .2

Southampton. . . . . . .1

SATURDAY night's choice of viewing from the BBC put Match of the Day up against The Natural. One was unquestionably the Ryan Giggs Show, the other could well have been if Robert Redford had not got there first.

Two flashes of instinctive brilliance by Giggs inside 60 seconds late in the game prevented Manchester United from falling five points behind Aston Villa at the top of the Premier League. They also failed to move Alex Ferguson and Tim Flowers from peculiarly contrasting standpoints afterwards.

Ferguson, who might have been expected to savour the Welshman's almost unnatural poise under pressure, instead bemoaned the 'poor entertainment value'. After grouching about how the referee, Southampton and even the wind had conspired to produce a staccato match, he concluded: 'You wouldn't want to pay to watch that.'

But what about Giggs's display? 'We are saying nothing about him,' Ferguson replied, in keeping with his policy of no agents, no advertising deals and no interviews. When pressed, the Victor Meldrew of football management would say only: 'His talent is maturing bit by bit. In four years' time we'll be able to say what the finished article is.'

Flowers, beaten twice by sublime finishing skill just when United seemed to have one foot in the grave, could have argued that Giggs was offside when he equalised Nicky Banger's opener after a breathtaking move that took the ball from United's six-yard area to the visitors' net in seconds.

Television proved otherwise, though Southampton seemed to have a case at the time. Within a further minute the red blur was there again, sending a previously subdued crowd into cacophonous song. Flowers, despite his disappointment, preferred to acknowledge the talent of his tormentor.

'I would pay money to watch Giggs,' he enthused. 'Speaking as a fan, I thought he was pure magic. Speaking as a member of the goalkeepers' union, he's an absolute nightmare. He's going to terrorise a few more of us before he's through.

'I'm not old enough to have seen George Best at his peak, but Giggs must be somewhere near. He goes down the wing like a snake, sidewinding all the way, and you never know if he'll cut inside and shoot or dip outside and cross. He's only 19 - it's frightening what he could achieve.'

His chances of picking up a championship medal this year remain strong, although there were a few worrying signs for the worshippers at Old Trafford. One is that Mark Hughes's goals have dried up, as they did at this stage last season. He has now scored once in nine outings; hence Giggs's late move into the middle.

Another concerns the way that Gary Pallister, who had gifted a goal to Sheffield United a fortnight earlier, backed off as Banger ran from half-way before scoring for the third successive match as substitute. A loss of form in the spine of the side could be fatal for United, who face Liverpool, Villa, Norwich, Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City in the next seven weeks.

Equally decisive, however, could be Ferguson's ability to keep the heat off his players. His criticism of Southampton - by no means the spoilers he had implied and too good to go down - suggested he has not learned from last spring. As Bryan Robson observed before the match, United have a fit squad, no cup distractions and no fixture pile- up looming. This time there can be no excuses.

Goals: Banger (78) 0-1; Giggs (82) 1-1; Giggs (83) 2-1.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Kanchelskis, Phelan, Sealey (gk).

Southampton: Flowers; Kenna, Adams, Widdrington, Hall, Monkou, Le Tissier (Banger, 66), Dodd, Dowie, Maddison, Benali. Substitutes not used: Moore, Andrews (gk).

Referee: R Lewis (Gt Bookham, Surrey).