After smiling benignly as the build-up gathered pace through the week, Sir Alex Ferguson pulled the rug from under all the eulogies by asking Ryan Giggs to wait for his 1,000th senior game, sparing his longest-serving disciple even the need to sit on the substitutes' bench as Manchester United turned a stuttering start into a stroll in the end, opening up a 15-point gap at the top of the Premier League.
The spotlight was taken instead by a young man from Japan at the other end of his career. Displaying a deftness of finishing touch that the Welshman, sitting in his tracksuit behind the active participants, could only admire, Shinji Kagawa, the attacking midfielder Ferguson signed from Borussia Dortmund last summer, became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League.
At 23, Kagawa is a player Ferguson believes will be "far, far better next season", which can only dismay United's rivals, as he looks pretty effective now. However much his game may improve, he could hardly have taken his goals with greater composure.
"He is a good finisher," Ferguson said. "His second and third goals were terrific, and he showed great intelligence for the first one, really well executed. He is getting his form back after the period he missed through injury in November, which set him back. He'll be a far, far better player next season."
Given the contribution of Wayne Rooney, in his first full 90 minutes since the away leg at Real Madrid in the Champions League, it was a deeply satisfying afternoon for the United manager. Rooney was the provider for Kagawa's second and third goals, before adding his own party piece in the final minute, dropping a shoulder to evade an attempted challenge before beating Mark Bunn with a dipping shot.
The absence of Giggs confirmed that Ferguson is no sentimentalist, denying the Welshman the opportunity to reach his milestone 22 years to the day since it all began, when he came off the bench in a 2-0 home defeat against Everton.
He might now chalk it off against Madrid on Tuesday and Ferguson promised that he "owed it to the lad" to make sure he is involved. Some would consider a European Cup tie of such moment to be a more fitting occasion in any event.
There was no place either for Rio Ferdinand, the Scot's other cherished veteran. Yet it was a strong United line-up, surprisingly so given the circumstances, with a cushion at the top and the Madrid clash so close. Both Rooney and Robin van Persie started, despite the latter's recent hip injury, with Michael Carrick alongside Anderson in central midfield, and Nemanja Vidic partnering Jonny Evans in central defence.
It seemed to be a clear statement to Manchester City and the rest that there would be no throttling back, no taking anything for granted, that the screw might as well be turned, rather than Roberto Mancini be allowed to further indulge his fanciful conviction that the gap a the top can be closed. Yet somehow United struggled at first to put together the emphatic performance the statement needed and it took until first-half added time for them to take the lead.
Norwich had kept their shape, kept their attacking instincts in check, and while United created some attractive approach play, all too often it lacked a precise final ball. Norwich were well aware they were the last team to have beaten United in the league and had arrived on the back of a morale-boosting victory over Everton last week, their first in 10 Premier League matches. They were also looking like a tough nut for United to crack.
If they had survived until half-time, perhaps they could have turned a screw themselves, in terms of frustrating the hosts. But then Van Persie won a challenge with Sébastien Bassong for Antonio Valencia's cross from the right, the ball spun to Kagawa, who was slightly off balance but righted himself enough to stab past Bunn.
Norwich did not look out of it until the closing stages. A decisive intervention by Vidic thwarted Robert Snodgrass at the near post. Then, after Grant Holt had headed down an Anthony Pilkington cross, Russell Martin somehow hooked the ball over the bar from close range, his embarrassment spared when Holt was penalised for a foul.
The floodgates opened only after Kagawa had scored his second after 77 minutes, a beautifully crafted goal set up by Rooney from a long pass by Carrick and slotted home with icy coolness.
Norwich were then ripe to be picked off and, in another break through the middle by United, Kagawa fed Danny Welbeck, who had a replaced Van Persie in a precautionary change as the Dutchman felt his hip again, and kept running, the ball coming back to him via Rooney. His finish again was exemplary. Norwich were gone by the time Rooney made his mark but it was a brilliant finish nonetheless.
With that, Ferguson turned his mind to Madrid.
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