Photo Gallery: Landmark for Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, heartbreak for Norwich City
Norwich City 1, Manchester United 2: Ryan Giggs was the story but do not underestimate Norwich City's role in this pulsating Premier League chapter.
The roar that greeted Grant Holt's late swivelling half-volley was heard from Carrow Road to the Etihad.
The skipper's leveller and the ear-piercing decibel charge it triggered was reminiscent of another sun-kissed day in these parts less than 12 months earlier when Simeon Jackson scrambled home that decisive goal against Derby to tilt the race for the second Championship promotion spot towards Paul Lambert's men.
Echoes of the past were everywhere. The Welshman's close range finish at the far post deep into stoppage time sent the Red hordes into delirium. Ferguson's coterie of backroom staff spilled on to the pitch in a repeat of that iconic moment when his former assistant Brian Kidd sunk to the turf in relief following a history-changing Old Trafford intervention from ex-Norwich old boy Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday. Bruce's late brace back in April 1993 helped secure a first United league title under the Scot – one Mike Walker's City vintage had put under considerable strain for a large part of that memorable campaign.
Spanning both was the omnipotent presence of Ferguson and Giggs; the twin pillars on which that modern-day Old Trafford institution has been constructed. A bastion of excellence to rival any of the greatest eras of domination in English club football.
David De Gea's brilliance testified to Norwich's ability to impose their own will on the reigning champions. United's incessant pressure when pegged back shone a light into the core of Ferguson's soul.
A side of his making is never, ever beaten. Lambert's edifice in Norfolk possesses many of the same attributes. Norwich fell behind early, but responded in kind. Paul Scholes can still hurt with his visionary passing ability; that particular quality remains timeless. The former England man's senses appear sharper than ever.
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The cunning to delay his run into the Norwich penalty box yet still arriving perfectly on cue to slot Nani's early cross from the right. United looked in the mood not only to close the gap on their city rivals, but turn on the style in Norfolk. The Portuguese was one of only three starters from the midweek Europa Cup defeat to Ajax. The visitors looked bright and full of vigour.
Bradley Johnson finally caught up with Nani in an abrasive scissor tackle on half way that earned the first caution. The damage had already been done, but it was a signal delivered right in front of Ferguson his champions were not going to have it all their own way. United's fluid movement had caused City far too many conundrums during the opening stages.
Nani and Javier Hernandez combined to exploit instability down the Norwich left again before the Mexican picked out strike partner Danny Welbeck. John Ruddy was the England hopeful's equal – pushing his goalbound shot around the far post.
Lambert edged to the front of his technical area. The message imparted was a simple one; City's midfield had to get tighter to their United counterparts. To suffocate space. Restrict time.
Phil Jones hacked the ball out of play. Nani's late flick on Andrew Surman gave David Fox a chance to test his former employers with a probing set piece. Zak Whitbread and Elliott Ward's aerial power momentarily upset United's backline before the composed Rio Ferdinand took evasive action. Jackson tumbled under Patrice Evra's close attentions – Fox delivered, Ferdinand defended. Battle was now joined. The 'wow' factor surrounding the men in red had worn off.
Evra dropped to his knees requiring minor treatment shortly afterwards. Sir Alex made his presence felt for the first time during the temporary pause. Nani and Jonny Evans were exhorted for greater effort. The United oligarch has prowled enough touchlines to sense a sea-change; a mood swing. Norwich at Carrow Road is a formidable proposition for anyone when the force is with them.
Kyle Naughton is the sort of footballer who could comfortably operate amongst Ferguson's collective. A young thoroughbred with a touch of class that sets him apart as a major prospect. The Tottenham loanee's clip was controlled by Anthony Pilkington drifting the wrong side of Evra. De Gea looked badly exposed but for all the Spaniard's perceived frailties in adapting to the physical dimension of the English game his shot-stopping ability has never been in doubt. Pilkington's angled strike was kicked away at close quarters with a flick of his right boot.
United remained defensively resolute. Ferdinand was relishing Holt's muscular challenge. The one-time England skipper offered reassurance alongside the less certain Evans, but United carried plenty of attacking menace. Welbeck and Hernandez combined to bisect the City midfield – Ruddy gathered. Nani's failure to control Scholes' raking diagonal brought a swivel of frustration from Ferguson in his technical area. The mood had definitely changed.
The red dam was being probed for signs of weakness. It almost gave way on 34 minutes when De Gea expertly clutched Holt's glance from Pilkington's pacy cross. Johnson shook off the midfield enforcer tag long enough to spot Andrew Surman's penetrative run but his half-volley on the stretch brushed the side netting.
Holt was predictably a central character in an exchange to underscore the shifting dynamic. Nani was left in a heap on the turf – sore in limb and the perceived injustice of Jackson's uncompromising challenge. Referee Marriner was left unmoved by the protestations of both Nani and Ferguson, stationed yards away. The official hardly required Holt's back-up but he could count on it anyway. Respect had replaced a hint of early reverence.
De Gea rather aptly grasped Adam Drury's hanging cross in the final act of the opening period. The young keeper deserved his paternal pat around the head from Ferdinand who was predictably patrolling in the vicinity should the assured Spaniard revert to type.
United emerged for the second period clearly intent on strangling City's growing belief; Holt's best work in the first phase came from his shuttles between both points of their own 18-yard line as the likes of Scholes and Michael Carrick attempted to engineer prolonged spells of keep ball.
Johnson's dragged right-footer from the edge of the box on 58 minutes was the first minor tremor to the growing equilibrium. Ashley Young's arrival hardly signalled any truce from Ferguson. Elliott Bennett entered the fray seconds later as Lambert and his coaching staff looked to edge the tactical minefield.
Whitbread cleared when the bubbly Welbeck exchanged passes with Giggs to poke beyond the advancing Ruddy. The Welsh maestro was a coat of paint from a landmark goal after sidefooting Jones' rasping cross against the top of Ruddy's bar. Norwich needed a spark. It came in the unlikely frame of Aaron Wilbraham. The ex-MK Dons striker has brought light brush strokes to the canvass Lambert has constructed at Carrow Road since his arrival just in January 2011. There was an undeniable threat from Wilbraham's introduction for the second week in succession. A knock down for Elliott Ward created half a chance. A dexterous roll of Ferdinand helped the ball squirt towards Wes Hoolahan whose cross appeared to strike Evra inside the United box. Then a thunderous long range shot which brought the very best of from the airborne De Gea. Holt's pivot and hit seconds later brought the Spaniard crashing back to earth.
United responded to late adversity. As they always have done during the Ferguson era. Welbeck completely misjudged the flight of Giggs' cross. Ruddy then kicked away from the young striker. Ward and Ruddy escaped an embarrassing outcome when Nani's cross spat up at the keeper's near post. It was incessant. It was manic. But in the maelstrom stood Giggs. The Welshman stabbed home Young's perfect cross then took his leave before the noise had died down from the away end.
It was a fitting end to a special day for a man and a manager with a propensity to craft their own scripts. Norwich, however, rightfully deserved to share top billing.