By Greg Stobart at Loftus Road
Manchester United fans jauntily strolled away from QPR on Saturday with their side cruising towards the Premier League title, reflecting that the only sour note was the hip injury that forced Robin van Persie off the pitch five minutes before the break in the 2-0 victory at Loftus Road.
Van Persie picked up the problem in the build-up to Rafael's stunning 23rd minute opener when the collided with a pitchside camera after taking a shot that was saved by QPR goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
Yet even without their top scorer, United still strolled to victory in second gear and were barely tested by the hosts before Ryan Giggs sealed the points 10 minutes from time with a well-taken finish on his 999th professional appearance.
How United's stars rated v QPR
Van Persie has undoubtedly made a huge difference to United, who have 10 more points than at the same stage of the season last year when they were second in the table and two points behind City.
The 29-year-old has scored 19 Premier League goals for United this season and his killer instinct in front of goal has made the difference time and again over the course of the campaign as the Red Devils eye a second historic treble.
Ferguson declared after the win at QPR that Van Persie will be fit to face Real Madrid on March 5 as the Spanish giants arrive in the north west with the tie finely poised following the 1-1 draw between the teams at the Santiago Bernabeu.
"Van Persie seems to have collided with the camera dugout. We will assess him tomorrow - it was his hip," said Ferguson. "It will be tender but hopefully he will be alright in time for the Real Madrid game."
While United will want Van Persie's touch of genius as they look to progress into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the response of the rest of the squad to last season's dramatic final day has often been overlooked.
For a start, United are not a one-man team, and while Van Persie has grabbed the headlines, the supporting cast have improved by the week over the course of the campaign.
United always look to peak in the final months of the season and Ferguson will perhaps be most encouraged by the improvement in the defence, which has kept three clean sheets in a row in the league having conceded the first goal in 12 league matches this season.
That has in part been down to the form of goalkeeper David De Gea, who produced a man-of-the-match display in Madrid and against QPR stayed alert to produce the only action asked of him as he kept out Loic Remy's powerful strike.
Rafael has been superb at right-back - with the exception of a horrendous first half against los Blancos - and added to his catalogue of superb goals with perhaps the best of his career to break the deadlock here after a cagey first quarter of the game.
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And Ferguson's ear-to-ear smile after the Brazilian crashed in the opener was testament to the faith he has in the 22-year-old.
"The lad has had an absolutely magnificent season and is maturing all the time," the manager said afterwards.
The likes of Danny Welbeck and Michael Carrick have also played key supporting roles for Van Persie and are players ingrained in the United ethos, the winning mentality built into the squad by Ferguson over the last 26 years.
Giggs, the embodiment of that never-say-die attitude, has put in some fine performances of late and would have started at the Bernabeu had it not been for his hard work in the preceding game against Everton.
And the veteran once again rolled back the years on Saturday as he wrapped up victory, scoring at the same end as he did during a 3-2 win at QPR back in February 1994.
All told, a number of players have improved on their performances of last season, and have taken their game to the next level in a similar manner to Van Persie himself following his summer move from Arsenal.
That is why United are responding to last year's bitter blow of losing out to City with ruthless efficiency and are already champions elect with 11 games still to play. Van Persie would be the first to admit he is not the only man to play his part in the transformation.
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