"Today was a day to rejoice", reflected Sir Alex Ferguson, and long after this facile victory is forgotten, the circumstances surrounding it will be imprinted on the memories of all those present.
A few hours earlier, at Stormont, George Best's countrymen had paid their farewells to him at what was a state funeral, bar the pomp and circumstance. And this, remember, for a man who left Belfast to profit from his footballing prowess 44 years ago. "The ceremony was very touching," added Ferguson, who attended the funeral, but arrived back in time to take charge of his side here. "I just felt very sad for his family."
On a dank evening within what can only be described as a 68,000-seat annexe of that old home of government in Northern Ireland, the faithful also paid their own homage to a character who last pulled on a Manchester United shirt 31 years ago. It says everything about the Irishman that his memory transcends the years as well as national borders, and, it must be added, the sectarian divide.
Outside the stadium, scarves, flowers and shirts festooned the pavement and walls. Before kick-off, against beleaguered visitors whose chairman Milan Mandaric was a significant figure in Best's life, a drizzle swirled around them as a crowd gathered to inspect messages.
In a sense, many regarded this stadium as much Best's home as Belfast's Cregagh estate where he was brought up. The display of respect to their favourite son was a poignant answer to those iconoclasts who have sought to diminish a sporting god on the basis of his human weaknesses.
There was a minute's applause before kick-off. Then football, having paid its respects, moved on - if just a little bit poorer for the loss of such a gifted son. It was an occasion to appreciate those who present themselves as possible Bests of tomorrow. Ferguson had opined in his programme notes: "At one time, people described Ryan Giggs as the new George Best and now it's the turn of Wayne Rooney, who was outstanding in London [against West Ham] last Sunday. Fortunately, Wayne has the kind of nature that will see him handle that kind of projection. I'm more confident about him than anyone else that he won't buy into the celebrity flattery that is bound to come his way."
Though the United manager is understandably wary of any attempt prematurely to propel Rooney into a similar echelon as Best, the temptation must be difficult to withstand after yet another exhibition of vision, precision passing, and a seventh goal of the season.
Rooney, Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Ruud van Nistelrooy all came close as United laid siege to the managerless visitors and Rooney's fierce attempt from a tight angle just cleared the bar.
A fragile wall of resistance had to disintegrate and after 20 minutes, Giggs' corner offered Paul Scholes the opportunity to steer a header past Jamie Ashdown for his first goal of the season. Before the interval, Rooney, playing withjoie de vivre, released Van Nistelrooy, but he was foiled by the goalkeeper.
Within a minute of the restart, Matthew Taylor spurned an excellent chance to equalise, his well-struck shot palmed to safety by Edwin van der Sar at the near post. That was a rare foray. Portsmouth, in the charge of Joe Jordan, had looked largely impotent in attack.
Cristiano Ronaldo, another who, no doubt, has pretensions of ascending to the heights of Best in the game, had started on the bench, but replaced Giggs with 25 minutes remaining. Almost immediately, the Portuguese winger began to torment the opposition.
With 10 minutes remaining, it was Rooney, the Croxteth Kid - who else? - who made things safe. Louis Saha made a powerful run into the visitors' defence, and though Andy Griffin nicked the ball off him, he over-ran it on the edge of the area. Rooney dispatched it wide of Ashdown without breaking stride. Ronaldo constructed a third with a typical run which set up Van Nistelrooy who chipped over Ashdown into an unguarded net.
Matters, you suspect, may be somewhat more daunting at Benfica's Stadium of Light on Wednesday in the Champions' League decider. It was where Best established his reputation. United will need to bring their own illumination to this contest, just as he did on a famous night 39 years ago.Reuse content