Even at 38 years old, there are still some days when Ryan Giggs makes playing for Manchester United look so effortless it is as if he could go on forever – and when they play as they did last night it must be hard to contemplate retirement.
On their way to running five goals past Fulham, United were excellent. As for the old boy pulling the strings in central midfield, this was Giggs at his old silver-fox best with a goal as well that means he has now scored in every one of the 20 seasons that the Premier League has been in existence.
It helped that Fulham were at their listless, uninterested worst but it still required United to pull them apart and they did so with three goals in the first half, including one from Giggs, and then two in the closing stages from Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. In a week that has brought a degree of turmoil to both Liverpool and Chelsea this was exactly what United required.
Captained by Patrice Evra, the other man at the centre of the Luis Suarez race controversy, United kept pace with Manchester City who beat Stoke City 3-0 and go into Christmas as leaders by two points. If there were any concerns at all for Sir Alex Ferguson last night then it was in the injuries to Phil Jones and Ashley Young.
Jones was left groggy by an elbow in the face from Clint Dempsey in the first half and, despite making one fine saving tackle on Bryan Ruiz subsequently, he eventually went off as a result. Ferguson said that he will have an X-ray on a suspected broken jaw which, in the worst-case scenario, could mean that he misses as many as six weeks.
His departure, with United already a goal up through Danny Welbeck, required a tactical reshuffle and the introduction of Young. He did not make it past the hour. Young overran the ball and made a dubious challenge on Dickson Etuhu in which both feet were off the ground.
Viewed from certain angles it might have been a red card, and ironically it was in much the same area of the Craven Cottage pitch that Jay Spearing was dismissed for Liverpool earlier this month. In the end, Young had to go off himself. He hurt his leg in the collision and, Ferguson said, he too could be out for a couple of weeks. Absent last night, Rio Ferdinand is also expected to miss Monday's home game against Wigan.
Ferguson appeared to blame Young's injury on Etuhu rather than the challenge from the United player. He said: "We had to make changes when Phil Jones was injured. Rio got a knock on the foot on Sunday at QPR but he should be available for Blackburn [a week on Saturday]. We'll see on Jones. He was caught by an elbow although I don't think it was intentional.
"But there were some very aggressive tackles in the second half and Ashley Young paid the price for that. He will be out for two or three weeks."
That is quite a list of casualties – potential and real – when injuries and illness to the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher are factored in. But this was a 5-0 away victory, the heaviest inflicted on Fulham at Craven Cottage in 24 years, and with wins over Wolves, Queen's Park Rangers and now Fulham, United have generated some momentum since their Champions League exit.
The United travelling support sang enthusiastically about "Thursday nights in Amsterdam", embracing their new Europa League status. At Fulham, the Europa League is a symbol of one of the greatest achievements in the club's history and the gulf between the teams was painfully evident.
Jol bemoaned the sloppiness in his team that had allowed United to go one goal up within five minutes when Nani went past Ruiz – whose attempts at tracking back were laughable – and Chris Baird before squaring the ball for an unmarked Welbeck to score.
"In the first half we weren't good enough," Jol said. "In the second half I think it was a bit better for 35 minutes – but it doesn't show if you lose 5-0. Of course 3-1, 3-2 would have been better. It's not easy when you concede a goal early and when we couldn't get the ball to Moussa Dembélé, Clint Dempsey, Bryan Ruiz – never mind Andy Johnson. That was disappointing.
"The early goal wasn't good for the confidence. We had a good goal difference before this game but this result has destroyed it. If I say 'It [the win for United] was too easy' that sums it up."
The second goal was headed in by Nani from Giggs' curling cross and the man himself got the third on just his fourth League start this season. For those who care about such things, it was the 19,999th goal in Premier League history and, struck from Nani's first time pass, it was deflected and looped up and over David Stockdale .
There was much discontent among the home support, elements of which booed their team off at half-time and full-time. There is a maddening inconsistency about Jol's team that is alarming for their manager. That said, he did not make a change until the 74th minute and that was to exchange one right-back for another. Bobby Zamora was given only the last five minutes as a substitute.
United should have had a penalty when Philippe Senderos, who struggled in the first half, kicked the inside of Welbeck's leg in the area. That said, there was a bad challenge by Jonny Evans on Dembélé in the first half,
Fulham were fractionally better at the start of the second half. In goal in place of David de Gea was Anders Lindegaard, one of two changes made by Ferguson from the team that beat QPR. He looks solid and commanding and he did well to save a header from Dempsey.
As Fulham's tempo flat-lined again, United took advantage. Rooney struck a swerving, powerful drive past Stockdale with two minutes remaining. Then Berbatov, on for Welbeck, clipped in Antonio Valencia's cross in injury-time. Even after that, Giggs was driving United on for more.
Fulham (4-4-2): Stockdale, Baird (Kelly, 74), Senderos, Hangeland, John Arne Riise, Ruiz, Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey (Zamora, 85), Dembélé, Johnson. Substitutes not used Etheridge (gk), Gecov, Duff, Hughes, Frei.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Lindegaard, Smalling, Jones (Young, 20; Park, 58), Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Nani, Rooney, Welbeck (Berbatov, 76). Substitutes not used De Gea (gk), Hernandez, R Da Silva, Fryers.
Referee M Halsey (Lancashire).
United: No Gaitan deal is in place
Manchester United affirmed in the strongest manner possible yesterday that they have not been in discussions with Benfica over the purchase of the Portuguese club's midfielder Nicolas Gaitan. Sources in Portugal have said that a preliminary £29.3m deal is in the offing, though United have taken the unusual step of dismissing the claims and stating that they have not discussed the 23-year-old. Gaitan shone against United in Europe, much as Sporting Lisbon's Joao Moutinho did in 2007, and though Moutinho was then linked with a move to united, nothing materialised.