In a career of fairy tales this was the yarn Ryan Giggs dare not dream. To hope for a start against Real Madrid and make a 1,000th appearance at the age of 39 sounded like the fantasy of a man searching for his marbles.

Then Sir Alex Ferguson made it reality and the team-sheets showed the name of the Welshman in the Manchester United XI. As the news reverberated around Old Trafford that Wayne Rooney was dropped – perhaps "the writing is on the wall for Wayne," Roy Keane opined on ITV – Giggs bounded through a pre-game warm-up that had been seen 999 times before.

Then came the bombshell. As the contest unfolded the role for Giggs became clear: despite having legs 12 years older than Rooney, he was deemed better equipped to be the second man alongside Rafael da Silva in the quest to stymie Cristiano Ronaldo along the left side.

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This was the job handed to Rooney three weeks ago at the Bernabéu in the opening leg. How Ferguson's decision impacts on the forward's long-term prospects at the club will intrigue over the coming weeks. What Giggs offered in Rooney's stead during the first half was enough to convince that this was the correct call from the manager.

Giggs offered defensive diligence blended with attacking threat that made a case for him being United's best player before the teams turned round and Nani's red card presaged a second-half backs-to-the-wall display from United.

Midway through the opening half, there was a vintage Giggs on show as he took Fabio Coentrão to school. Real's young left-back became the latest in a long line of patsies who have been mugged by the dazzle of a Giggs dummy, step-over and hip-swivel that were all included in a moment of sorcery down the right. This trickery ended with Coentrão being outmuscled when Giggs won a corner.

As a burst of one of the home congregation's favourite ditties gleefully informed Coentrão that "Giggs will tear you apart, again", he stepped up to land the corner plumb on Nemanja Vidic's head but the captain could not covert.

A further highlight came with a cross that was flicked with the outside of the Giggs's famous left foot that dropped perfectly for Robin van Persie to volley a shot at Diego López's goal that required a last-ditch Sergio Ramos's block. When play surged the other way at United, Giggs made several telling challenges and not all were on Ronaldo.

His opening action was to clash with the Portuguese and help wrest possession from him. But there followed tackles on Coentrão and Mesut Ozil before he and Da Silva worked the Ferguson blueprint expertly: double-teaming Ronaldo to squeeze him off the ball.

In a hint of his selection, Ferguson wrote before: "Nothing but the best for the best, so Ryan will be in the squad tonight and all being well will play a part in what is sure to be a fantastic match as he celebrates his 1,000th appearance. Ryan has been unbelievable over the years and he is still playing a part, so much so that we have been able to give him a further one-year contract. I have to add my decision to include him is not totally because I have gone soft: it's because there is nothing to beat ability and experience when it comes to the big occasions, and Ryan has plenty of both of these qualities."

His starting berth once more confirmed the player's standing as Ferguson's man for the major nights. Giggs started the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals in the central-midfield role that has come as naturally to him as the wing play that made his name.

Five years have passed – half a career at elite level for many players – since he surpassed Sir Bobby Charlton's record mark of 758 games for United when coming on as an 87th-minute substitute in the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea. To this feat he added the penalty in the shootout following extra time that won the trophy when Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka's spot-kick to put Giggs – and United – in dreamland in Moscow.

The player with more Premier League appearances than Manchester City strode back on for the second half, having been vital in keeping Ronaldo quiet, to see his team take the lead through a Ramos own goal after Nani had crossed, then go behind as Luka Modric equalised before Ronaldo scored.

Before these goals Nani had departed for a high kick on Alvaro Arbeloa and Ferguson could be seen rousing the United fans to raise the decibels as he sensed this could be a long evening.

As the Scot frantically reshuffled his pack in search of the two goals required to go through it was first Tom Cleverley who was sacrificed – for Rooney who finally entered – Danny Welbeck (for Ashley Young), and Rafael (for Antonio Valencia), as Giggs remained.

Pre-match, the Scot also wrote: "I must make mention of the ovation the Madrid fans gave our Ryan Giggs when he played at the Bernabéu in the first leg because, like our supporters, they appreciate excellence."

The recalibration of the Giggs game from youthful zephyr to midfield general has been one of modern football's greatest second acts.

Approaching 40, he is the warrior in the United ranks who can still offer so much.