The pursuit of a quintuple is an impossible one, Sir Alex Ferguson declared recently. So exactly which trophy is conceivably beyond his side? Minus a clutch of their established stars, United breezed over another hurdle yesterday with the most senior and junior members of their ranks contributing with a symmetry which suggests that theirs is a club for the present and for the future.
Ryan Giggs, whose winner at West Ham seven days earlier had presaged his new one-year contract, created most that was memorable but Danny Welbeck's third goal in six appearances and Darron Gibson's major contribution provided an ominous sense of the continuity which marks out United from any other club in the land. Giggs was too wise an old head to suggest directly last night that four more trophies might be United's this season but evidently he does not share his manager's pessimism. "We've obviously got a good squad. We'll need all the players now we are in all the cups," he said.
Derby County have grown as a side since the Carling Cup victory over United at Pride Park last month which marked Clough's arrival at the club. Players like Shaun Teale and Robbie Savage, marginal figures under Paul Jewell, talk of a return to the basics of football and both have been recalled and reborn. Clough, who likes to keep things low key, had insisted that lightning didn't tend to strike twice where claiming Sir Alex's scalp is concerned, though the omission by Ferguson of Dimitar Berbatov, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar, among seven first-team regulars, gave some hope that the 1-0 win last time around might be repeated.
But it was the presence of an individual who played more than his fair share in Clough's father's travails against United who proved why he is worth the further year's football United have just contracted him to play at Old Trafford. Giggs, starting as a striker but drifting deeper to engineer United's offensive play, had already fashioned two opportunities with sweeping 20-yard passes before an exquisite back-heel into the path of Darren Fletcher, whose shot forced Stephen Bywater into a sharp save.
The move presaged a first half of United dominance which, for all the renewed enthusiasm currently coursing around Pride Park, provided a reminder of the club's fateful last season in the top flight. The Derby captain, Paul Connolly, bore the brunt of United's invention and was confounded by Nani. The Portuguese eased past him to cross for an acrobatic right foot volley from Park Ji-Sung which Bywater acrobatically touched over.
Rob Hulse provided a fleeting threat for Derby, though his claims that Rio Ferdinand had felled him in the box were empty and inside the half hour United were ahead, Giggs once again delivering the important flick which steered a Gibson pass into the path of Nani.
The Portuguese has not often demonstrated that he is more than a squad player at Old Trafford this season but his finish was exquisite, the 22-year-old taking three touches to drift inside Connolly and thump a right foot shot beyond Bywater, his fifth goal of the season.
Then, a moment which, had the game had a tight complexion, might have been a talking point. Ben Foster, returning to the ground where he made an impressive debut for United last season, punted a long ball which was flicked by Giggs into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo, who raced on to deposit it into the net. Ronaldo was well into his celebrations when the goal was disallowed and Ferguson was incandescent with the fourth official Rob Styles. But the referee Alan Wiley had been waiting to see if Giggs had touched the ball, playing Ronaldo offside, before making his decision.
The protests were immaterial when a Ronaldo free-kick five minutes later was deflected into the path of Gibson who deposited a right-footed shot to seal the tie. Ronaldo confirmed the gulf in class two minutes into the second half, depositing home a thumping header after Miles Addison failed to mark him from a Giggs corner and Ferguson was able to start turning his mind to Wednesday's significant game in hand over Liverpool, Aston Villa and Chelsea – removing Park and Patrice Evra from the fray.
True to the Clough spirit, Derby did not lie down and there was another goal to give the Midlands side one particular piece of bragging rights: that Derby have scored four out of the last five goals United have conceded. The provider was Kris Commons, whose floated cross from the right was headed in powerfully by Addison.
For a 10-minute period it seemed just about possible that a comeback true to the two which had brought the Rams to the fifth round might be on the cards. Teale, again relishing the left-wing role Clough has released him into, provided the best that came from Derby and he forced a save of the first order from Foster, cutting in from the flank and unleashing a powerful shot which the goalkeeper, at full stretch, palmed away.
But United's fans thoughts were turning to the Premier League, too, with shouts of "top of the league and that's a fact" the latest to remind Rafael Benitez of the "facts" he delivered in his public assassination of Ferguson in December, and when the game began to drift there was a reminder of the talent which Ferguson has stored up for the days when he is long gone. Yet another of Giggs' weighted passes into the Derby danger zone was stroked on by Fletcher to the substitute Welbeck, who stepped up and curled an imperious right-foot effort way beyond Bywater. There was not a flicker of emotion as the 18-year-old raised an arm in celebration: it is early days for him but this goal, taken with his 30-yard strike on his League debut in United's 5-0 win over Stoke City three months back reveals his to be an exceptional talent.
Clough raised his own hand when implored by his side's fans to do so and the Derby manager provided more evidence of his fitness for the struggles ahead in the equanimity of the way he took defeat last night. The midweek visit to Plymouth, one place ahead of Derby and embroiled in the same relegation fight, is a more significant occasion than this and then comes another visit to Nottingham Forest heavy with significance again for Clough. United, meanwhile, still stride imperiously on, in pursuit of every piece of silverware going.
Goals: Nani (29) 0-1; Gibson (44) 0-2; Ronaldo (48) 0-3; Addison (56) 1-3; Welbeck (81) 1-4.
Derby County (4-4-1-1): Bywater; Connolly, Addison, Albrechtsen, Stewart; Barazite (Sterjovski, 63), Savage (Pearson, 81), Green, Teale; Commons, Hulse (Porter, 67). Substitutes not used: Carroll, Nyatanga, Davies, Todd.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra (O'Shea, 54); Park (Welbeck, 54), Fletcher, Gibson, Nani; Ronaldo (Possebon, 71), Giggs. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak, Vidic, Scholes, Welbeck, O'Shea, Tevez.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffs).
Booked: Derby Connolly.
Man of the match: Giggs.
FA Cup Sixth-round draw and replay dates
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Tuesday 24 February
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Thursday 26 February
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Blackburn/Coventry v Chelsea
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