Gibson offers solace as United's old soldiers head towars the exit door
THE image of Paul Scholes prowling the Manchester United midfield against Chelsea on Saturday, socks rolled halfway down his shins and shirt hanging out of his shorts, said it all.
With Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville also fighting a vain battle to summon the energy to keep pace with Carlo Ancelotti's vibrant team, the sight of Scholes straining through his third game in seven days painted a picture of Alex Ferguson's 'golden generation' being sucked into the twilight zone.
Nothing lasts forever, even those "kids" that Alan Hansen suggested would never win anything for United have grown old, and Saturday's defeat brought that cold reality home to Ferguson. As he penned his team for the Champions League return against Bayern Munich, Ferguson removed the names of Giggs, Scholes and Neville before he inserted Wayne Rooney.
In their place came the youthful energy of Darron Gibson, Rafael da Silva and Nani and, while it might not have been the passing of the torch, it was certainly the first move towards the endgame. Despite his ruthless streak, Ferguson has often spoken compassionately of the anguish that comes with drawing a line under his players' careers.
Whether it be high-echelon legends such as Bryan Robson or Roy Keane or home-grown talents such as Phil Neville or Nicky Butt, Ferguson has confessed to the pain of opening the exit door. But sentiment is the last emotion he allows to influence his judgment.
The same goes for Giggs, Scholes and Neville. All were plucked from the playing fields of Manchester as teenagers and have long since earned their place in Old Trafford's hall of fame. They have amassed more than 2,000 first-team appearances between them and helped add countless trophies to Ferguson's roll of honour.
But Giggs made his debut against Everton in March 1991, Neville in a Uefa Cup tie against Torpedo Moscow 18 months later.
Against Chelsea, their longevity showed. Giggs, Neville and Scholes belong to another age, albeit a golden one.
They remain capable of influencing United's performances, but there can be few chapters left to add their stories. For Neville and Scholes, 'Happily Ever After', might be penned in just six weeks' time.
In an ideal world, Ferguson would have unearthed new gems to replace his crown jewels years ago, but the muddy pitches of Salford, Bury and Middleton don't produce the marvels that they once did.
Nevertheless, in Nani, Gibson and Rafael, Ferguson had three hungry young men last night eager to accelerate the falling of the final curtain for their illustrious elders.
Gibson, who appears determined to assume the mantle of Bobby Charlton and David Beckham with his eye for the spectacular, embellished his reputation with a stunning first-half performance.
The Derry man's third-minute goal, from a scorching 20-yard strike, was the kind of contribution that Scholes in his prime delivered countless times in a season.
But Gibson also energised United's play. His buccaneering performance injected the urgency that was lacking against Chelsea and his passing was astute and penetrating. Nani, at 23, appeared to be heading out of United when he accused Ferguson of "breaking my confidence" in November, but the Portuguese has resurrected his career in recent months and he produced arguably his best performance in a United shirt against Bayern.
Two glorious goals justified his selection ahead of Giggs, but it was the third young buck who ultimately let United down. Rafael, fitter, fresher and quicker than Neville, started well against Franck Ribery, but his senseless dismissal for two cheap yellow cards on 50 minutes left United with 10 men for most of the second half and opened the door for Bayern to take full advantage. (© The Daily Telegraph)