There was a rather excellent cameo at the end when, after the fourth official's board flashed four minutes of added time, Manchester United fans borrowed a song that Wolverhampton Wanderers fans had coined in the week. "We want six," they sang, and Sir Alex Ferguson waved his wristwatch at them ostentatiously.
It was a fitting epitaph to an afternoon when Ryan Giggs showed he has stopped all the clocks that should tick when a player knows he will be into his 37th year in two months' time. It is hard to remember Giggs starting a season better and Thomas Sorensen feels he might be operating on his highest plane. "I would say that he might just be playing the best football of any season in his career," the Stoke City goalkeeper said. "The difference between now and when he was 17 is he's very clever now and avoids stupid challenges."
The way Dimitar Berbatov pointed immediately to Giggs when he had opened the scoring, tapping in the ball the Welshman had navigated through to him, having inveigled himself into space at the back of the box, suggested mild embarrassment at cashing in on an old man's labours. "I thought the game changed when Giggsy came on," Berbatov said. "You can see the experience of playing for United for all these years helps him with his decision-making when he comes on. It was his decision-making that won us the three points; the pass to me to score the first and then the free-kick for the second." John O'Shea, converter of that second on his 350th United appearance, made the same implicit statement that Giggs had offered something Luis Nani had not.
The question for Ferguson, after United's seventh straight win since the stunning defeat to Burnley, is how much longer Giggs can carry the mantle which Cristiano Ronaldo placed down in the summer. He played 435 minutes of football in United's first seven Premier League games of the season, compared with 315 in the equivalent number in the last campaign, and the time must be approaching – perhaps on Wednesday night for the arrival of Wolfsburg – when the manager deploys Michael Owen with Wayne Rooney from the start, in search of other lines to goal.
Berbatov insisted yesterday that goals were not his sole aim – "the most important thing for me is not to score myself but to make sure the team keeps winning and we stay top of the table" – but the partnership with Rooney still sputters. The chances of it firing into life on Saturday would have been greater had the two not looked like an estranged couple. Of the 34 passes made by Rooney and the 23 by Berbatov, only one each went to the other. Most of Berbatov's work was with Antonio Valencia, including the exquisite ball from just inside United's half which the winger should have converted for his first United goal.
It would be a different-looking United who start with Owen, the one of the three strikers with a more single-minded desire to play off a defender's shoulder, work himself some space and score. Owen operating with Berbatov would be intriguing, even though Rooney would be consigned to the left wing for "the graveyard shift", as Steven Gerrard calls it. Or else, the two Englishmen starting together would offer Rooney the greater industry he would appreciate in a strike partner.
For now, though, Ferguson can reflect on a stroll past the side who had lost only to Chelsea and West Ham at home in 2009. The Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, sees only United and Chelsea as title contenders – "those two are on a par; they are two great teams and it will be out of those two who wins the Premiership." In part, he put defeat down to the Manchester United aura. "They're the biggest team in England and we were off it." But the reality was more encouraging than that for other sides who travel to Stoke with heavy hearts. United gave nothing for Stoke's physical reputation, deployed their most creative players without fear and, just like Giggs, found they had all the time in the world.
Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Sorensen; Huth, Adoulaye Faye, Shawcross, Collins; Lawrence (Pugh, 86), Whelan, Whitehead (Tuncay, 71), Delap; Etherington; Kitson (Beattie, 71). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Higginbotham, Cort, Wilkinson.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, O'Shea; Nani (Giggs, 56), Scholes (Carrick, 80), Fletcher, Valencia; Berbatov, Rooney (Owen, 80). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Neville, Anderson.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Stoke Huth; Manchester United Scholes.
Man of the match: Scholes.
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