Giggs slips quietly into the sunset

United's loyal servant was more anonymous on the pitch than in the tabloids

As if to prove that stereotypes linger, the pre-match entertainment for London's European Cup final consisted of dancers in bowler hats and umbrellas.

The skies above the stadium remained a cool, pale blue, which for Sir Alex Ferguson would have been a poor omen. He had won three of his four European trophies in the driving rain and the only water that fell on Wembley's perfect pitch came from the sprinklers that soaked Pep Guardiola and his boys as they danced with the European Cup that their manager had won as a player here 19 years before.

For Ferguson there was only a final press conference and an acknowledgement that Manchester United had been overwhelmed by the finest side in world football. There was little he or his players could have done to prevent the dam burst that flooded over them. As David Villa slammed the third, killer goal home, Ferguson simply sat cross-legged, the breakers already washing over him.

He had always shied away from discussing the failure to beat Barcelona in Rome two years ago. The margin of defeat in the Stadio Olimpico had been too great for pleasantries. It was narrower than it was at Wembley. Sometimes it seemed United's only hope would be the kind of over-confidence that had betrayed the Holland of Johan Cruyff against an inferior West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final. Wayne Rooney's goal paradoxically ensured that would not happen.

On the evening he was awarded his customary accolade of manager of the year, the Tuesday night of Gary Neville's testimonial, the emperor posed for a picture with his praetorian guard. Beside Ferguson were the men upon whom he had built his empire. Nicky Butt had rather less hair, David Beckham rather more tattoos, Paul Scholes looked much as he did in 1995.

Ryan Giggs was greyer, older if not necessarily wiser. There has been no footballer, not even Lionel Messi, whose life has been as discussed, debated and dissected. Of modern sportsmen, only Tiger Woods can understand what it is like to be the lead item on national television news and then have to make an inch-perfect pass or putt. Woods's touch had deserted him as quickly and completely as his sponsors' endorsements.

Bullfighting is on the point of being outlawed in Catalonia and its great centrepiece in Barcelona, Las Arenas, is now a shopping centre. However, no animal surrounded by picadors can have been so mercilessly and repeatedly wounded as Manchester United were before the great broadsword of Rooney's boot swung the teams level. Then the fantasia of Barcelona, echoing through the boots of Messi and Villa, sent the spears driving again into naked, bleeding flesh.

At times on this long London night, it was hard to tell whether Giggs's touch was there at all. Before kick-off the big screen had shown the Busby Babes merging into Ferguson's squad. Bobby Charlton melded into Giggs, which seemed an apt comparison.

Charlton, even more than George Best, had been the decisive figure of the 1968 final but the short pass for the equaliser was Giggs's only real contribution and, before the end, he had been put flat on his back trying to wriggle past Daniel Alves.

There was a banner in the United end that declared, "Ryan Giggs Our Messi". He was nothing like Messi last night, nobody in a white shirt came anywhere near the boy from Rosario, who at 23 may already have eclipsed Diego Maradona as Argentina's greatest footballer. Nobody in Spain much cares what he does off the pitch.

Giggs's private life is no more scandalous than that of Bobby Moore, whose statue adorns this stadium. The England captain had no need of thousand-pound-an-hour lawyers because he had something more precious, the trust of journalists who knew him. A private life is no measure of greatness, otherwise Kenneth Williams, who never had sex and hardly drank, would be judged a finer actor than Richard Burton, who did far too much of both.

Shortly after being enveloped in the scandal of the jewellers shop in Bogota, Moore gave one of his great performances against Brazil in Guadalajara, made famous by the photograph of his embrace with Pele. It was too much to hope Giggs might do the same.

Instead, the comparison was with another of England's great sportsmen, Geoffrey Boycott, trying with every sinew to lay a bat on a jagging ball in Barbados as Michael Holding bowled the finest and possibly fastest over in Test cricket. The age difference between Boycott and Holding was the same, 14 years, as between Giggs and Messi, and the result was the same.