Giggs helps United go 15 clear in 999th gameBy Rob Harris
LONDON — Ryan Giggs marked his 999th match as a professional by scoring in another age-defying, influential display to help Manchester United go provisionally 15 points clear at the top of the English Premier League on Saturday.
A late goal from the Welsh midfielder followed a fine strike by defender Rafael da Silva in a 2-0 victory over bottom-place Queens Park Rangers.
“He’s delivered again,” United manager Alex Ferguson said of the 39-year-old Giggs. “He’s an amazing man.”
Even if second-place Manchester City beats Chelsea on Sunday, Giggs seems headed for a 13th league title at the club where he has spent his entire career.
For traditional rival Arsenal, however, the season is mainly coming down to salvaging a spot in the Champions League places. The north London club did manage to put its recent cup disappointments behind it with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa to go provisionally a point behind fourth-place Tottenham.
Villa sunk back into the relegation zone with Wigan, which lost 3-0 to Reading, and QPR.
Also, sixth-place Everton fell five points behind Arsenal after losing 2-1 at Norwich, West Bromwich Albion rose to seventh by beating Sunderland by the same score, and Fulham defeated Stoke 1-0 in a mid-table clash.
United has dropped only 11 points all season, and took just 23 minutes to go in front at Loftus Road with an exquisite opener.
Robin van Persie broke down the right and whipped in a cross that goalkeeper Julio Cesar parried. But the ball fell to Rafael, who blasted it into the top corner from 25 yards.
“I just saw the ball coming towards me and hit it as hard as I could,” the Brazilian defender said. “You can feel by the way you hit the ball that it’s going in … I can’t remember scoring a better goal.”
There was a setback for United, however, as Van Persie had to come off before halftime with a hip complaint.
But without its top scorer, United relied on its oldest player to extend its advantage in the 80th when Nani set up Giggs to beat Cesar from an acute angle.
As United marches toward a record-extending 20th English title, the second tier looms for QPR, which is seven points from safety.
At Emirates Stadium, Arsenal recorded a third straight league victory, but it came at the end of a week when the team’s hopes of a first trophy since 2005 seemed to end.
Second-tier club Blackburn knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup last Saturday, and Bayern Munich won the first leg of their Champions League last-16 meeting 3-1 on Tuesday.
The Gunners scored after just six minutes, though, to settle some of the nerves against Villa. Santi Cazorla was at first denied by goalkeeper Brad Guzan but he sent the rebound into the net.
The failure to build on that position of strength proved costly as Andreas Weimann leveled in the 68th after being able to charge through the Arsenal defense unchallenged before striking from 25 yards.
But Cazorla swept home his 11th goal of his debut season in the 85th after meeting a cutback from Nacho Monreal.
“We went through some difficult days and we responded in a united way,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
Villa is left to scrap it out in the relegation zone after Wigan rose ahead on goal difference.
Arouna Kone scored twice in two minutes just before halftime to make it 10 goals in all competitions since joining Wigan from Spanish club Levante at the start of the season.
Maynor Figueroa netted Wigan’s third after the break and Reading’s afternoon worsened when striker Pavel Pogrebnyak was sent off for violent conduct in the 55th.
Reading was six points ahead of bottom-place QPR but a point behind Villa and Wigan.
Norwich was eight points clear of danger after Grant Holt secured his team’s first league win in two months.
Everton led through Leon Osman’s first-half header, but Kei Kamara began Norwich’s fightback in the 84th with his first goal since arriving from Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City last month on loan until the end of the season.
Holt grabbed the winner in stoppage time, netting from close range.
At West Brom, Romelu Lukaku netted from the penalty spot in the 35th and again in the 75th to take the on-loan Chelsea striker’s league tally for the hosts to 12 this season.
One of the finest goals of the day came at Craven Cottage, with Dimitar Berbatov’s crisp volley settling a drab match on the stroke of halftime. Stoke forward Jonathan Walters missed a second-half penalty.