What the papers say

Monday 31 December 2001

THE STANDARD

The return of Ryan Giggs on Sunday cast a shadow over the championship hopes of Arsenal, Chelsea and those other teams battling it out at the top of the Premiership.

His scintillating form on his restoration to the Manchester United team following another spell on the sidelines with a troublesome hamstring has coincided, with United's five-game unbeaten run, which has left them only three points behind league leaders Arsenal.

The influence of the Welsh international on a team written off after a dismal run of results earlier this season should not be underestimated by those teams with title aspirations.

Giggs has been on the losing side in the Premiership on only two occasions this season and since his comeback against Middlesbrough 15 days ago, United have scored 11 goals and collected maximum points from four games.

These statistics, allied to manager Sir Alex Ferguson's belief that Giggs is crucial to their success, will certainly reverberate through the dressing rooms at Highbury, Stamford Bridge, Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool.

Giggs, playing behind Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack against Fulham, scored two opportunist goals and set up the other for the Dutchman in a 3-2 victory at Craven Cottage yesterday. His performance even overshadowed David Beckham's return to United's starting line-up.

His pace and power proved too much for Fulham skipper Andy Melville, who has seen enough of Giggs during their times together with Wales to know how much damage he can do given the freedom the Fulham defence presented him with.

Melville was left gasping when Giggs set up United's second for van Nistelrooy moments before the break and he was chasing shadows again when the Dutchman returned the compliment for Giggs to fire the third immediately after the restart.

United finished? Not according to Melville. He said: "Everyone knows United have quality going forward and they looked a lot stronger at the back than they have been this season. We were disappointed with the result more than our performance. I think we caused them a bit of trouble in the first half when we hit the woodwork twice. But we gave three sloppy goals away. They were mistakes and defensively we haven't done that all season."

As Melville pointed out, United's resolve may have been tested more thoroughly had efforts from Louis Saha and Barry Hayles not cannoned to safety off the crossbar in the opening half.

Indeed, they were swiftly made to pay for Saha's unfortunate third-minute miss when, 60 seconds later, Giggs capitalised on Edwin van der Sar's poor clearance to steer the ball into an empty net from 20 yards.

When van Nistelrooy added the second minutes before the break it looked all over but Sylvain Legwinski gave Fulham a lifeline with their first goal in six games moments later.

However, a breakdown in concentration allowed Giggs to sweep the ball in at the near post a minute after the restart and United's grip on the game was never threatened thereafter.

Fulham did manage to construct a second when £11.5 million record signing Steve Marlet, grabbed his first goal for the club in the dying moments.

Marlet's progress has been blighted by a knee injury and a hairline fracture of the leg since arriving at Craven Cottage from French side Lyon last August. But the 27-year-old French international striker is now determined to prove his worth to the Fulham fans.

Marlet said: "I am very happy to score my first goal for the club. Now that I am fit again, I will prove to everybody that I'm a good player. It is a new start for me."

Marlet's strike could not have come at a more opportune time for Fulham manager Jean Tigana, who was thought to be looking for a new striker.

Fulham had not scored in their previous five games before yesterday and now they have to concentrate on avoiding being sucked into a relegation battle.

Marlet added: "It is very important to win the game against Derby on Wednesday because we need to get more points and create a gap between us and the teams below."

Meanwhile, there's plenty for Ferguson to celebrate on his 60th birthday - £8m in the bank from the sale of Andy Cole to Blackburn; that five-match unbeaten run; United are breathing down Arsenal's necks and Giggs is back to his best.

DAILY TELEGRAPH

Fulham players, Steve Finnan, Rufus Brevett and Sylvain Legwinski continued to impress. They just need a greater cutting edge. Fulham are a joy to watch until they reach the final third where their insistence on over-elaboration is frustrating.

Fulham's fans pleaded with someone to take responsibility with chants of "have a shot". They were hamstrung by Louis Saha's near anonymity, though Steve Marlet did come on to score his first Fulham goal.

For United five wins on the spin have swept Manchester United to within three points of the leaders, the numbers are beginning to add up to Sir Alex Ferguson's men being No 1 again in five months' time. United's manager will awake this morning to celebrate his 60th birthday with the "four in a row" chants of the champions' fans ringing in his ears.

The Scot will not be seduced by such presumptuous thoughts; he had deliberately dismissed any title talk, so challenging the pride and professionalism of his players; even yesterday he was trotting out the "uphill fight" mantra. Even Ferguson's weekend assertion that he might consider staying on at Old Trafford was designed to put the fear of Govan into his players.

His mind games have worked, as has his decision to return to two attackers, though yesterday it was Ryan Giggs racing from behind Ruud van Nistelrooy to devastating effect. Giggs was terrific down by the Thames, slipping past Fulham's midfielders and defenders like a speed-boat through container ships.

Giggs struck twice (taking his season's tally to six, all away from home) and made the other for Van Nistelrooy. "Giggs will tear you apart again", sang the joy division of United's support. Ferguson has often mentioned his desire to play Giggs through the middle. "Ryan gives us great penetration," said Ferguson yesterday.

The Welshman's pacy, perceptive runs, whether with the ball or simply seeking it, coupled with his finishing touch, make him such a potent threat when unleashed down the central avenue. "I've played in this position before, so I'm used to it," Giggs reflected.

Andy Melville, who was humiliated by his Wales team-mate for the third goal, spoke glowingly of Giggs. "He's a top-quality player who played just off Van Nistelrooy; those are the sort of strikers that defenders hate to mark," said Melville. This championship race of quantity and quality may yet be decided by whose hamstrings prove the hardier - Giggs's or Michael Owen's.

Such was Giggs's excellence as Van Nistelrooy's accomplice that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Dwight Yorke, who made only the substitutes' bench, could be forgiven for wondering whether Andy Cole did not have the right idea after all, hotfooting it to Blackburn Rovers to get a game.

"It was proving difficult to keep Andy Cole," said Ferguson. "We've had seven great years of service from him. It's not easy being a sub. I recognised that it was time for him to move on." It will be interesting to see if Ferguson tampers with the Giggs-Van Nistelrooy axis for Wednesday's visit of Newcastle United; Giggs might enjoy the prospect of running at Bobby Robson's central defence. Van Nistelrooy is clearly a fan. "We had the `feeling' together," said the Dutchman of Giggs.

As well as Giggs's dominant display, United's victory in a vibrant match was rooted in good performances from the agile Fabien Barthez, the alert Gary Neville and the diligent duo of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt, such formidable shields to the back-line.

The goals began early with Giggs and finished late with Marlet. Seconds after Saha had struck the bar in the fifth minute, United broke swiftly, the ball worked at speed from Barthez, Keane and Paul Scholes, whose driven pass was met maladroitly by Edwin van der Sar. The ball bounced via Brevett to Giggs, who exploited Van der Sar's absence from the goalmouth to slide the ball smoothly in.

Fulham refused to bow, Barry Hayles hitting the bar and then Steed Malbranque and Legwinski bringing good saves from Barthez. But Van der Sar was busily making up for his earlier aberration and saved well from Laurent Blanc twice and Butt.

But there was nothing the Dutch keeper could do when Van Nistelrooy next came calling a minute from half-time, having twice exchanged passes with Giggs before steering home a cross. Fulham responded instantly: Malbranque's free-kick was headed past Barthez by the stooping Legwinski.

Moments after the interval, United restored their two-goal advantage. Barthez's long ball was flicked on by Van Nistelrooy and there was Giggs, outpacing Melville, to shoot in from the tightest of angles. Two minutes from time, Marlet turned in Brevett's cross but United were worthy winners. The rest of the country have been warned.

THE INDEPENDENT

Sir Alex Ferguson's hint that he might be persuaded to remain in the Old Trafford dug-out is, it is suggested in some quarters, linked to whether he ends this season with, or without, a trophy or three. It is claimed he told the players this a month ago. Quite what he thinks of their response can only be guessed at.

Since he reportedly issued this pledge or threat United have won five Premiership matches in succession, bringing up the quintet with an impressive victory at Craven Cottage yesterday. They are now within three points of the lead and back in the bosom of the bookmakers. Does this show how keen the players are to allow their boss to walk triumphantly into the sunset at the time of his choosing? Or their horror at the prospect of another season under the lash of his tongue?

United's revival might, alternatively, have be down to the return to fitness of Ryan Giggs. The Welshman's form has been recognised in his leadership of The Independent's Premiership Index but it is no less evident in the Premiership league table.

Yesterday Giggs scored twice and made another, scored by Ruud van Nistelrooy, as United's all-round quality blunted Fulham's attempts to gain a first victory over them here since before even Laurent Blanc's birth.

Moreover Giggs, instead of playing his usual left-flank role, occupied United's problem position, supporting Van Nistelrooy. With his pace, intelligence and graft he looked as comfortable there as anyone has this season. He was also able to pull out wide to provide balance on the left while Scholes tucked in.

"He has great penetration," said Ferguson of Giggs. "He can beat a man or hold the ball. He did very well."

On the other flank David Beckham made his first start in seven matches. After a shocking opening, during which he looked more like a nervous debutant, he produced flashes of his ability, but was largely overshadowed by the indefatigable Roy Keane and the busy Nicky Butt.

Fulham, as usual, played well between the penalty areas, but were hesitant in both boxes. An error of Fabien Barthez proportions by Edwin van der Sar gave United a lead which, despite spirited opposition, they never relinquished. Fulham's first goal, from Sylvain Legwinski, was quickly neutralised by Giggs while their second, by Steve Marlet, came too late. At least Marlet's goal, not only his first since signing for £11m in the autumn, but in his comeback match from serious injury, offers hope of a more incisive cutting edge.

While the sale of Andy Cole underlined United's attacking riches, they went into this match having already scored 17 goals this month. Fulham's unsuccessful pursuit of the striker underlined a return of just two goals in the same period, both scored by Barry Hayles.

With Marlet on the bench Hayles started up front with Louis Saha. Their fortunes were summed up when each hit the bar. Saha was first to rattle the timber, doing so in the fourth minute after United failed to clear a corner. Almost from the restart Scholes played a long ball towards Van Nistelrooy. Van der Sar rushed out to clear but his mis-hit kick struck Rufus Brevett and fell to Giggs just outside the box. He calmly rolled the ball into the empty net.

Van der Sar was not given time to dwell on his error. After 14 minutes Mickaël Silvestre delivered a deep cross which dropped behind Brevett to Van Nistelrooy. Van der Sar blocked with his legs. From the corner he saved again, this time from Blanc's header.

With Blanc still getting back into position Steve Finnan launched the ball forward. Phil Neville could only head the ball down to Hayles, who thumped his shot against the bar. It rebounded to Steed Malbranque but Barthez, recovering quickly, turned his shot over. Two minutes later Barthez again denied his compatriot, this time from a free-kick.

With Blanc and Butt heading wide it took another defensive error for United to extend their lead. Giggs caught Andy Melville in possession by the half-way line, exchanged passes with Van Nistelrooy, then set off down the wing. The Dutchman was there to steer in his cross. The game seemed over but, in first-half injury-time, Beckham fouled Brevett and, from the free-kick, Legwinski lost Scholes to head in. A capacity crowd looked forward to a stirring second period, but barely a minute had elapsed before Van Nistelrooy flicked on a Barthez kick and Giggs embarrassed Melville and Van der Sar as he scored from an acute angle.

With Van Nistelrooy missing an inviting chance to close the game up Marlet's tap-in, after Brevett had dribbled by Beckham, Butt and Blanc, gave Fulham brief but unrealised hope.

Next up for United are Newcastle, at home on Wednesday. "It is a vital game," said Van Nistelrooy, "but they all are now. We still depend on others to lose, that is why we have to keep winning ourselves."

Ferguson, as disingenuous as ever, added: "We have an uphill fight. If you look at the league at the moment you see we can't afford to make a mistake and they all know that."

With United in this form, no one can afford to falter. As Giggs said: "We've been here before. That's important at the end of the season."

THE TIMES

AT THE close of a year that brought Big Brother II, Celebrity Big Brother, Popstars and Soapstars, Manchester United provided viewers with one last episode of reality TV yesterday afternoon.
Their fifth successive league victory, a 3-2 triumph over Fulham at Craven Cottage, kissed goodbye to the fantasy that United had become the busted flush of the FA Barclaycard Premiership. The pretenders to their throne have heard one Christmas message loud and clear this season: Sir Alex Ferguson is watching you.

Two goals from Ryan Giggs, whose return after injury has been the inspiration behind their revival, and another from Ruud van Nistelrooy - made by Giggs - were enough to take United beyond the powder-puff challenge of Jean Tigana's side and to within three points of Arsenal, the league leaders. More obdurate opponents await in January but while United retain their unparalleled ruthlessness in dispatching lower-grade opposition, they will continue to harbour hopes of extending their domestic hegemony.

The saga of their attempt to give Ferguson a triumphant send-off as retirement beckons seems destined to become a great sporting cliffhanger. So, too, does the issue of his successor at Old Trafford. David O'Leary, the Leeds United manager, appeared to add himself to the list of men who have ruled themselves out when he signed an extension to his contract yesterday.

Some newspapers suggested that a familiar figure was emerging as the favoured candidate. His name: Sir Alex Ferguson, and he is still sending out mixed messages.

He repeated his intention to walk away at the end of the season again yesterday but, in the next breath, refused to rule anything out. It was Ferguson, after all, who summed up the volatility of the game that he has graced with his exclamation that night in Barcelona three summers ago.

"Football, bloody hell," he said then. Who knows what surprises he may have in store as 2002 hits its stride.

One thing is certain: retaining the league title will not be the waltz of last year. As the yo-yo of public and media opinion swings wildly back towards the viewpoint that United suddenly have become unbeatable footballing gods again, though, it would be foolish to fall prey to the same abandonment of perspective that greeted their slide down the table just weeks ago. If it was misguided to think that United would not be in the mix one way or another by the end of the season, so it would be irresponsible to suggest that they are now playing without vulnerability.

They have some momentum now that may be hard to arrest but they are still not the team of last season: nowhere near it. The fact that they allowed a team that had scored two goals in their past six league games to double that tally yesterday tells its own story. Laurent Blanc still looks so out of his depth at the heart of the United back four that the labours of a once accomplished and elegant defender make a poignant sight.

Blanc does not carry the ball out from the back, does not distribute it well, does not tackle well or organise the defence well. He is a passenger and even if United can just about afford to carry him against offensively weak teams like Fulham, the suspicion is that his atrophy will be cruelly exposed by the other leading sides. Any one of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Michael Owen, Alan Shearer or the rejuvenated Robbie Fowler would feast on his decline and reawaken United's suffering.

There is a possibility that Ferguson will put some of the £8 million raised by selling Andrew Cole to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday towards buying another central defender. An ambitious, youthful sort such as Philippe Mexes, the highly rated centre half from A J Auxerre, would be a valuable addition if Ferguson could tempt his club to part with him. Kevin Hofland, of PSV Eindhoven, is also a fitting target. With John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Ronny Johnsen injured, Ferguson needs to bring someone else in. As long as, of course, his pride will let him.

For the moment, Blanc's deficiencies are being camouflaged by the excellence of others - in particular, Gary Neville, his partner in the centre of defence, Roy Keane, who produced another titanic performance in front of the back four yesterday, and Giggs and Van Nistelrooy, whose instant understanding up front produced three counter-attacking goals that ripped through a stunned Fulham defence.

The fact remains, though, that United have conceded more Premiership goals this season than every team bar Bolton Wanderers, Southampton, West Ham United and Leicester City. Ipswich Town and Derby County have less porous defences.

"At the moment, we're OK," Ferguson said when asked whether he would use the revenue from Cole's sale for team strengthening.

Privately, he must know that is not the case. His side face Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Wednesday and Liverpool, also at home, later in the month. With David Beckham still struggling for his best form, United have become alarmingly reliant on the spine of their team - Neville, Keane and Van Nistelrooy - and especially on the pace and incision of Giggs. He played as a central striker with Van Nistelrooy yesterday, an innovation that has long been in Ferguson's mind and which was an unqualified success.

In the understandable obsession that has grown up around the deeds of Beckham, Giggs's influence on this United team has tended to be overlooked, but now that the England captain is suffering a dip in form, the ability of the Wales forward to run at a defence with pace, not to mention his unsurpassed industry, has assumed even greater importance.

With Giggs in his pomp, United have a chance of reaching the summit first in what Ferguson still sees as an "uphill fight". Unless he moves to replace Blanc with the same ruthlessness that he used to excise Jaap Stam, Arsenal, the class in the field at the moment, Leeds and Liverpool may start to pull away again. The Premiership awaits Big Brother's next move.

THE TIMES (II)

THE change of fortune started with a transformation of outlook. While results were bad, Manchester United were consumed by introspection, brooding over the possible loss of their status as Premiership champions. If the squad was wrapped up in itself then, it has now begun to unfold all the talents. The side continues to be flawed, but the league contest is all the better for that.
At Craven Cottage, the visiting team dealt with any limitations through vivid, sophisticated attacking. They required all of that creativity.

On a chilly afternoon, Fulham twice made the crossbar shiver and a second goal, from Steve Marlet in the 89th minute, sent a tremor through United. Newcastle United will have mused on that and made a brighter appraisal of their trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday, but the charm of these weeks arises from the weaknesses.

In their imperfection, Manchester United have reacted by producing some of their most fluent football. The uninhibited reaction to the challengers in the Premiership is epitomised by Ryan Giggs. It is not just that he is fresh after a spell of inactivity because of injury; he appears to be reliving his youth in the nature of his influence. That aspect was seen in the carefree gallop that took him in from the wing to head the opening goal away to Everton on Boxing Day.

He was the scorer of two more goals here and an ideal partner for Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack. Andrew Cole has gone to Blackburn Rovers and there could be a signing by United, with the murmurs about a move for Paolo Di Canio, of West Ham United, rising in volume once more, but any newcomer might have to reconcile himself to afternoons among the substitutes.

Fulham, pardonably, had no counterpart to such a force. Jean Tigana's side began the match with almost as good defensive records as the recalcitrant back fours of Chelsea and Leeds United, but Sir Alex Ferguson's men, quicksilver in mind and body, dissolved the barriers.

Their effort to retain the title will depend on élan and that is a matter of practicality rather than romance. United are not rugged enough to thrive in any other way.

Indeed, the opening impression yesterday was of frailty and, following hard on its heels, good fortune. Louis Saha slammed a left-foot drive against the woodwork in the fourth minute and United, their step quickened by relief, moved downfield immediately. Paul Scholes's pass was too long, but Edwin van der Saar miskicked against Rufus Brevett outside the penalty area. Possession ran to Giggs, who rolled the ball home.

Vexation must have been at the core of Fulham's vigour. Barry Hayles hit the crossbar and Fabien Barthez, with his mischievous glee restored, made the first of several excellent saves as Steed Malbranque let fly at the rebound. There was technique to admire in Fulham, with John Collins the most composed member of the midfield, but they did not have the flair in attack to match United.

Marlet, fit again after a knee injury, has now opened his account for the team after his £11.5 million transfer from Lyons, but it was always apparent why the club needed to invest so heavily in a forward. The Frenchman, who is not yet match fit, was only a substitute yesterday and his worth as a full member of the side will help to determine the nature of Fulham's season.

Van Nistelrooy can become another character in the epic of Old Trafford life. One can pay him no higher compliment than to say that he is reminiscent of his great countryman, Marco van Basten, who was perhaps the finest centre forward of all time. Everything seems within the scope of Van Nistelrooy, whether he is required to be target man or predator. He assumed both roles in lightning succession after 44 minutes.

Giggs squared to him and Van Nistelrooy released the Welshman before turning in the cross with a carefully angled leg. Within moments, Fulham pulled back a goal as Sylvain Legwinski headed in Malbranque's free kick, but neither that interruption nor the interval broke Van Nistelrooy's concentration.

In the 46th minute, he headed David Beckham's pass into the path of Giggs. Van der Saar seemed to think that the angle was too awkward for the United forward and was taken by surprise as Giggs's shot flashed high past him at the near post. Van Nistelrooy was to be faulted only for missing after Beckham's pass had cleaved the centre backs in the 69th minute. Had he shown his usual accuracy, this might have turned into a debacle.

United, instead, allowed the match, fleetingly, to be intriguing once again. The build-up in the 89th minute was slick as Brevett exchanged passes with Collins to make room on the left, but it was rather too simple for him to charge past Nicky Butt and Laurent Blanc before leaving Marlet with an open goal.

Not only the United-loathers should have found pleasure in that incident. It was good news for those who crave entertainment. That little piece of fallibility was another reminder to United that they can succeed this season only if they keep up a frantic chase for goal after goal.

THE GUARDIAN

Ryan Giggs turned up the heat in the title race as he inspired Manchester United to victory at Fulham and warned that the champions have more run-in experience than their rivals.

Giggs scored twice and set up another for Ruud van Nistelrooy as he sparkled in a new role just behind the Dutchman to guide United to their fifth consecutive league win amid an ominous revival.

Following their 3-2 victory at Craven Cottage, they are now just three points behind leaders Arsenal and are back within touching distance of all of their main rivals.

Giggs highlighted what he believes will be a crucial advantage after seven titles in the past nine seasons. He declared: "We've got the experience of going into the last part of the season and winning the championship.

"That's important. You need that experience as people will take points off each other. It's just how you react that matters."

He told BBC Radio Five Live: "The ability was always there but we just needed to have a bit of luck and to go on a run.

"We just have to concentrate on this run we're on and carry it on. We know it's difficult and we have a lot of ground to make up but we just have to keep on winning."

The Wales international only came back from injury a couple of weeks ago but his inspired display at Craven Cottage overshadowed the return of David Beckham to the starting line-up.

Having put United ahead after just five minutes following an error by keeper Edwin van der Sar, he then set up van Nistelrooy before restoring his side's two-goal cushion after Sylvain Legwinski had pulled a goal back.

A late strike by substitute Steve Marlet could not spark a Fulham comeback and Sir Alex Ferguson's side prevailed by the same scoreline as at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season.

The United boss admitted on Sky Sports: "We've got an uphill fight, we can't afford to make a mistake. All the teams up at the top have got a fantastic chance and everyone can win it."

Ferguson refused to expand on comments suggesting he may rethink his decision to retire as manager at the end of the season, but praised Giggs' influence and paid tribute to Andy Cole, who signed for Blackburn yesterday.

"It was proving difficult to keep Andy happy on the bench," said Ferguson, who added that he did not have any immediate plans to sign a replacement striker.

"He gave seven great years' service to the club. He's not the easiest substitute to have."

Giggs, meanwhile, added: "Coley wants to play regularly. He feels like his chances of playing for England were probably hindered playing for Manchester United.

"But he'll get regular games for Blackburn and I'm sure he'll score regular goals."

Without Cole and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the bench, Giggs - rather than Paul Scholes - was used in the support role to van Nistelrooy.

"It's something I'm used to. I used to play it a lot when I was younger and I did it a couple of times last season as well," he said.

"The kind of team we are, we create a lot of chances. You just have to put them in the back of the net. I enjoyed the two goals but I enjoyed the result even more."

Ferguson had only recently pointed out Giggs' vital importance to his side given that the Welshman's penetration had been sorely missed while he was out with hamstring trouble.

"I didn't think it was true when I read that but having seen him play today, I think Sir Alex Ferguson was right," admitted Fulham keeper van der Sar.

The Dutchman, whose miskick gave Giggs his chance to open the scoring, bemoaned Fulham's defensive errors - but was at least heartened that they had doubled their goals tally for December with two more goals.

"It's good that we finally got on the scoresheet again but defensively we made two mistakes and they cost us the game. The result was a bit harsh but that's football," he said.

DAILY MIRROR

SIR ALEX FERGUSON is a past master of kidology and he had the whole of the Premiership fooled.

Just three weeks and five games ago, Fergie wrote off his own team's title chances and even the most loyal United fan was beginning to question whether they could do it again.

But at Craven Cottage yesterday it was back down to serious business as United prepare to go into the New Year just as they finished the last one - reigning supreme.

United clinched their fifth straight win to charge within three points of leaders Arsenal and the rest of the chasing pack will all be looking over their shoulders.

They did not need to be even near their best, but the United juggernaut rumbled on and suddenly they look capable of winning their fourth Premiership title in a row.

Fergie insists it is still an "uphill struggle", but they are well on their way to conquering the Premiership summit again.

England captain David Beckham was drafted back into the starting line-up for the first time in seven games and Juan Sebastian Veron was given the weekend off.

Beckham made a steady return but it would have taken something extraordinary to overshadow man-of-the-match Ryan Giggs, who was electric.

Giggs has been instrumental in United's resurgence and his return from injury has coincided with their re- emergence in the title race.

Winger Giggs had a field day at Craven Cottage as he scored twice and set up United's other goal for Ruud van Nistelrooy.

United were simply awesome going forward and, while there are still frailties in defence, they look as if they are always capable of scoring.

Paul Scholes still looks like little boy lost in United's five-man midfield and the players are still adapting to Fergie's tactics. But the worry for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds is that United can still get better and they are only three points off the pace.

No-one would envy Newcastle boss Bobby Robson facing in-form United at Old Trafford on Wednesday, and even Fergie would struggle to play down his team's chances if they beat the Geordies.

That is not to say that United had it all their own way at Jean Tigana's fast-improving Fulham yesterday.

Fulham hit the woodwork twice, staged a late rally and exposed holes in United's fragile defence. But - rather in keeping with the rest of their season - United survived, came out the other side and emerged victorious.

Even the sour-faced Fergie may allow himself a smile today - mind you, it is his 60th birthday!

United looked rocky in the fourth minute when Fulham striker Louis Saha crashed a 15-yard shot against the bar.

But within a minute, United had swept up the other end and the magical Giggs had given them an early lead, courtesy of a goalkeeping blunder.

United keeper Fabien Barthez has been the villain of the piece for most of the season but yesterday it was Fulham's Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar who dropped the clangers.

Scholes sparked United's attack with a long ball forward and van der Sar raced out of his area to clear the danger only to succeed in hitting the ball against his own defender Rufus Brevett.

Giggs did not need asking twice as he steered a 25 yard shot into the empty net.

At least van der Sar made amends with a smart save from van Nistelrooy and Laurent Blanc.

But United got out of jail again in the 16th minute when Barry Hayles crashed another shot against the bar.

This time the rebound fell in Fulham's favour and Steed Malbranque saw his follow-up shot spectacularly tipped over by the impressive Barthez.

While Fulham enjoyed a lot of possession they lack the cutting edge that United display, and did not look capable of turning their pretty football into enough goals.

United grabbed a second in the 45th minute as the outstanding Giggs and van Nistelrooy combined perfectly.

Van Nistelrooy's pass sent Giggs scampering down the left and he put over a perfect cross for the Dutch striker to sidefoot home from close range.

It looked over, with United cruising, until Beckham blotted his copybook in first-half injury-time by collecting a booking for a foul on Rufus Brevett.

Malbranque swung in a free-kick which caught United cold and Sylvain Legwinski ghosted in to head home and keep the game alive.

But it appeared over as a contest within 70 seconds of the restart as Giggs capped a wonderful afternoon with a fabulous finish.

Barthez's long clearance was flicked on by van Nistelrooy and, from a seemingly impossible acute angle, Giggs unleashed a brilliant left-footed drive into the top corner. Fulham then rarely tested United's still-creaking defence because they constantly over-elaborated.

Even the fans were chanting "Have a shot" when Fulham finally managed a second goal in the 89th minute through fit-again £10m French striker Steve Marlet.

Left-back Brevett handed the chance to him on a plate with a fine run into the box and a low cross which Marlet tapped in.

It made for a tense finish but it was not half as nervous as the rest of the Premiership will be this morning after United's re-emergence into the title race. They are well and truly back.

THE SUN

ALEX FERGUSON gave himself an early birthday present yesterday by signing up a new striker.

Welsh chap, goes by the name of Ryan Giggs, could be useful given a chance.

So there we have it. Killing two birds with one stone, Ferguson solved the problem of an over-staffed midfield and found himself even more goals despite off-loading Andy Cole for £8million.

At the same time, the few clubs left above United in the table will be glancing anxiously over their shoulders as United move to just three points off the top.

No doubt Ferguson will awake this morning and decide that, well, perhaps 60 isn't such a terrible age after all.

If the Premiership is starting to have a more familiar look about it, United will still have to defend much better than they did at Craven Cottage if they are to achieve the record-breaking fourth Premiership title in a row.

But having racked up a fifth successive win, with Giggs scoring twice and Ruud van Nistelrooy making it nine goals in seven games, things are looking far sweeter than any United fan could have hoped a few weeks ago.

The only person not necessarily celebrating Giggs' double may well be Paul Scholes. If Ferguson decides to continue with young Merlin up front then poor old Scholes looks stuck in left midfield for the rest of the season.

If Giggs' first was handed to him on a nice piece of Harrods bone china, then his second and United's third was a real collector's item.

It was also the one that effectively ended the contest against a Fulham side that once again paid the price for not taking its chances.

Having clawed their way back into it at 2-1 on the stroke of half-time, the last thing Jean Tigana's side needed was to concede a third goal shortly after the restart.

But that is exactly what they did as a well-struck pass - and it was a pass rather than a kick - from Fabien Barthez was met with a perfect, cushioned header from Van Nistelrooy.

Though Giggs ran onto it with only Andy Melville between him and Ed van der Sar, there was still a hell of a lot of work to do.

First, the ball seemed to have too much pace on it. Second, Giggs seemed to be at too oblique an angle.

In a trice, the Welshman had brought the ball down and shovelled it inside the near post with that magic wand he sometimes uses to support himself when it is not scattering stardust all over the place.

Fulham fans will look back on a familiar tale of good approach work ruined by poor finishing, allied to some diabolical bad luck early on.

United started with the out-of-form Juan Veron given the weekend off, David Beckham back on the right and with Roy Keane and Nicky Butt continuing the central midfield partnership that had seen United win five of their previous six matches.

But they had the closest of escapes in the fourth minute when Louis Saha, with only one league goal since the second match of the season, almost brought down the crossbar with a 12-yard shot.

Within 40 seconds the ball was in the net at the other end - and again United had Dame Fortune to thank.

Scholes' long ball over the top brought Van der Sar to the edge of the box, only for the keeper's attempted clearance to hit Rufus Brevett and fall to Giggs.

Though he was 20 yards out, Giggs is far too much of an operator to let a chance like that slip and the ball was duly returned through the only available space into an empty net.

United could have gone further ahead in the 14th minute only for Van der Sar to save Van Nistelrooy's far-post shot with his feet and then see John Collins hack off the line Laurent Blanc's header from Beckham's corner.

Credit to Fulham, they came back immediately and would have drawn level but for another miraculous let-off, Barry Hayles again rattling the bar and Barthez producing a wonderful tip-over to deny Steed Malbranque from the rebound.

Two minutes later Barthez was again flying through the air, this time to deny Collins from a free-kick.

I cannot say I noticed any cries of 'Dodgy Keeper' filling the Thames towpath air.

Blanc, again losing his marker at a Beckham corner, glanced just wide and Van der Sar saved superbly at Butt's feet before Giggs and Van Nistelrooy combined magnificently for United's second in the 43rd minute.

The move never looked like ending in anything but a goal the moment the Dutchman released Giggs down the left.

As the Welshman accelerated down the flank so Van Nistelrooy eased himself into space in the middle and, when a waist-high cross duly arrived, Van Nistelrooy volleyed home a right-foot shot.

That should have been the sign for everyone to pack up and go home except Fulham quickly pulled one back as Sylvain Legwinski bravely got his head to a Malbranque free-kick as boots flew in front of Barthez's goal.

Giggs, though, killed them off within 60 seconds of the restart and United could even afford the rarity of a Van Nistelrooy miss when clean through in the 69th minute.

Substitute Steve Marlet completed the scoring with his first goal for Fulham two minutes from time - and Tigana's side had found the net as many times in one game as they had managed in the previous six.