The present was already looking quite good enough yesterday when the gangling shape of Danny Welbeck, a striker still 11 days short of his 18th birthday, stepped up to provide a taste of the future.
The chances of a teenager from Longsight upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo seemed unlikely when Welbeck took the field for his Premier League debut, just past the hour. That changed in the time it took the gangling forward to take on a ball just beyond the centre circle, control it, exchange it with a team-mate with and unravel a 35-yard goal. Not bad for a player 21 minutes into his Premier League career attacking the Stretford End and the delight etched on his face last night showed how badly he will want more. "I wouldn't say I've dreamt about this but I've thought about it every minute of my life since I started playing football, really, and there's nothing better than it, to tell you the truth," he said.
Ronaldo did what he could to wrest back the spotlight. His first successfully deposited free kick of the season here took his personal goal tally for United to 100 in 253 games and he added the 101st from another free-kick a minute from time. He has climbed to joint second among the league's top scorers, despite not playing until September 27. But Welbeck took the day.
It all contributed to annihilation bordering on embarrassment for a Stoke side whose performance explained their paltry pickings of two points and three goals on their travels and whose left back Andy Griffin - substituted towards the end as Ronaldo ran riot - will particularly want to forget the afternoon. Only one Rory Delap throw caused problems and the left flank was a open door by the end. The consolation, their manager Tony Pulis said, was "the fact we've got another game on Saturday and its fresh game and we don't have to come here again."
The day wasn't the best for Fabio Capello, either, after Sir Alex Ferguson's disclosure that Wayne Rooney, missing here through a chest infection and calf strain, and Rio Ferdinand, absent after straining his back in training on Friday, will miss England's friendly in Berlin on Wednesday. But from the second minute, when Thomas Sorensen was deceived by the right-to-left swerve on Ronaldo's dipping left foot kick and watched it fly through his hands into the roof of his net, United looked perfectly capable of living without them.
Though Stoke showed some a defensive steadfastness in the 40 minutes that followed, the only Staffordshire visitors who managed to get anywhere near Ronaldo were their supporters who - apparently concluding that the only way of translating the club's home form to their travels is take a little of the Britannia Stadium with them - provided Ronaldo with his first real taste of the vitriol he might have expected after last summer. In what proved the only absorbing match of the afternoon, they got at him and warmed to the challenge when, perhaps unwisely, he blew them an ironic kiss.
But risks come attached to baiting a man who, as Ferguson put it, is "right on song" his speed "coming back with every game." It was Ronaldo's jinking run across the edge of Stoke's box that presaged a through ball, on the stroke of half time, which Michael Carrick strode on to and, reducing Salif Diao to a shadow, thumped left-footed past Sorenson.
Dimitar Berbatov moves in more mysterious ways. Those who challenge his goal record overlook the vast contribution he has made in half a dozen of Ronaldo's nine strikes but his seond league goal - United's third - saw the Bulgarian bringing down a Carlos Tevez ball immaculately and finishing, right-footed.
Sorensen's struggle with the artillery which United wheeled out as the half wore on was painful at times. A second dipping Ronaldo free kick panicked him and Andy Griffin hacked clear. It had turned into a Carling Cup situation by then, Ferguson also introducing Angolan striker Manucho, recipient of that exchanged pass with Welbeck as the Mancunian raced through for his goal, and Darron Gibson for Tevez, though his snatched second half shots telegraphed the fact he, for one, lacks confidence.
That can't be said of Welbeck, who by 5pm last night had re-watched his goal several times on a video monitor. "He'll remember it for the rest of his life," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "But I think he's level headed, he's intelligent and a few lads in the dressing room will be knocking him down, don't worry."