STOKE // Ryan Giggs once more proved he is simply irreplaceable as Manchester United strolled to their seventh consecutive victory. He may be 36 in November, but his second-half cameo showed there is no substitute for his experience and excellence. United had been struggling to turn their dominance into goals when Sir Alex Ferguson called up Giggs in the 55th minute. Seven minutes later, he ran on to Darren Fletcher's clever pass and crossed for Dimitar Berbatov to finish with a simple tap-in.
In the 77th minute, Giggs whipped in a cross from the right which John O'Shea glanced in to settle a one-sided encounter. Nani, who had been preferred to Giggs, should watch and learn from the veteran. With an endorsement from Cristiano Ronaldo, who said he could be "among the best players in the world in a few years", the stage was set for the winger. To not only show he could provide some of the unpredictable brilliance missing since his countryman's departure to Real Madrid, but that he was worth a regular first-team place.
A robust challenge from Robert Huth in only the second minute gave him a warm welcome to the Potteries. But Nani's pace was always going to be a threat against the towering German, who was playing at right back instead of his preferred centre-back position. And so it was with the Portuguese heavily involved in United's first-half dominance, creating the first chance in the third minute. His deflected cross dropped to Wayne Rooney, who, with his back to goal, hooked the ball over.
Antonio Valencia spurned a glorious chance in the eighth minute. The Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross did not react quick enough to a loose ball and Valencia broke clear and chipped the advancing Thomas Sorensen, but the ball agonisingly rolled wide. There was more dismay for United nine minutes later. From a Stoke corner, Berbatov cleared and they swiftly countered. Nani danced clear, but with Berbatov and Wayne Rooney in support and in space, he shot woefully over.
Just before the break, Nani did finally find the target, but the home keeper Thomas Sorensen was equal to it, pushing the ball away to his left. It summed up Nani's performance. Full of promise, but no end product. Stoke were disappointingly tame. They lacked the fight and fire they had shown against the top teams since their return to the top flight. Paul Scholes had the freedom to orchestrate waves of United attacks and Ben Foster, under pressure after error-strewn recent performances, was surprisingly untroubled.
Berbatov's goal, his second of the season, was reward for his effort. Last season, he set up Carlos Tevez for the late winner that his manager said was pivotal in their title success. As they joined Chelsea at the top, this victory will be just as crucial for this campaign. firstname.lastname@example.org