Ferguson said: "It's bad news for us. Giggs was in great form and showing maturity. We can't afford injuries - Paul Scholes has a knee problem and is struggling to make the Monaco game." Not only that, with other players on international duty United will be depleted for Wednesday's FA Cup replay against Barnsley. So for United the week ended with success and sadness intertwined.
Encouragement had returned when they played only marginally better than in several previous disappointing performances but still beat Aston Villa 2-0. The curious art of achieving unimpressive victories often wins titles, though yesterday the feeling was that they would need to be both impressive and artful to overcome Jim Smith's sagaciously assembled group of itinerants. That foreboding appeared justified when United's early persistence counted for less than Derby's occasional counterattacks. These saw Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin disconcerted by the extensive skills and extended legs of Paulo Wanchope, who, even so, could not quite control a searching through pass from Stefano Eranio.
That disappearing chance was to prove expensive since Derby then had to cope with Giggs near his roaming, tantalising best and linking like lock and chain with Andy Cole. Indeed, it was their 19th-minute exchange of passes that put United ahead when Giggs looked across the penalty area for Cole, saw him and found him. Cole immediately returned the ball to Giggs and he slid it beyond Mart Poom. United were encouraged to defend further forward, forcing Wanchope to start his running from the halfway line, and their confidence grew as Derby's counters were firmly met by Nicky Butt and Philip Neville in midfield.
The Giggs-Cole understanding remained the point of United's greatest potential, although translating that into a more substantial hold on the game tookpatience. That was in part the result of Derby's considerable defiance, some fortunate breaks in their own penalty area and a timely block by Poom when Cole hammered the ball at him from close range.
Without approaching the heights of their pre-Christmas performances, at least United look to be moving towards their next European challenge in an improving frame of mind. Nevertheless, the absence of Scholes was again a hindrance, giving Derby a keen competitive interest in the second half. For all of United's elegant, wing-to-wing passes, David Beckham was well monitored by Chris Powell while Teddy Sheringham rarely escaped the attention of either Christian Dailly or Igor Stimac.
United's fans, and probably their players, felt an urgent need to see the lead substantiated. It came after 71 minutes following a move that merited a goal, albeit via a penalty. Beckham located Cole from wide and he headed the ball down for Giggs to run forcefully into the penalty area. Rory Delap pursued Giggs and, realising the hopelessness of his task, hauled him down. Irwin smashed in the penalty but Giggs soon limped off to an ovation and deep disappointment.
The result did little to reflect the diligence with which Derby went about their work but neither did the score mirror the amount of effort it took United to dust away some of the staleness that eroded their position. Now they have other problems.Reuse content