PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 August, 1998, 12:00am

RYAN Giggs has been given the task of answering Alex Ferguson's prayers.

The Old Trafford boss, thwarted in his bid to lure a top-class striker to Manchester United, has turned to the mercurial Welshman as a stop-gap forward and playmaker.

But Giggs, one of only seven current Premier League players named in the '100 League Legends', may find versatility an enemy.

Ferguson knows his talented player faces a season which could justify that 'legendary' status but just as easily turn him into a famous substitute.

With the arrival of the naturally left-footed Swede Jesper Blomqvist, Giggs will be seen less often dashing down the touchline and more frequently in a free role, symbolically searching for the fulfilment of a fine talent that, unlike the spell-binding gifts of George Best, has not been dependable enough on the big occasions to merit being held among the greats.

If the new role should fail, the arrival of Blomqvist will mean Giggs will no longer be able to escape to the left wing, as he did last season, when his midfield work sometimes made no progress.

The move from winger to potential playmaker and stand-in striker has come sooner than he expected, especially since over the years his passing let him down.

Ferguson told him to study how John Barnes changed from a flying, dribbling winger to one of the game's most accurate passers. 'I worked on that until I was not giving the ball away go stupidly,' Giggs said.

Giggs is also aware of the need for a 'playmaker' to take a full share in stopping opponents from counter-attacking. He noted that the most successful midfield players in the World Cup this summer were those who were not only creative but went deep into their own half to re-build directly from the goalkeeper.

However, he says that he still takes his inspiration on that score from the very English Peter Beardsley.

Blomqvist, formerly of Milan and Parma and bought by United for ?4.4 million, said Giggs 'was' one of his inspirations, as if the Welshman was some boyhood hero now in decline. In fact he and Giggs are both only 24. It is just that Giggs has been in the United first team for seven years while seven years ago Blomqvist admits he was 'learning to tie my laces in the Swedish Third Division'.

In the meantime Giggs has won the small matter of four Premier League titles and two FA Cup winners' medals in a so-far glittering career at Old Trafford.

Whether these two similar players will become compatible or fail to link ? presumably leaving Giggs fighting to retain his place - is for the coming season to reveal, but there is little doubt that this is a crucial period in the career of the normally darting Giggs who, at the back of last season was too often appearing with remnants of injuries, costing him his vivid pace.

For several reasons there is cause to think that this season should be his best, though there is always the lurking danger of it becoming his most frustrating. Inevitably he is going to be compared with Blomqvist, but he says he has lived with the comparison with Best for so long he no longer feels challenged by anyone, past or present. Yet in truth he has not achieved the great Irishman's consistency.

It is a modern fallacy that Best was an overnight wonder, an early victim of an over-indulgent lifestyle. In fact, for seven years he played not only superbly but reliably.

Ferguson also says that too much has been read into the fact that Giggs will operate in a more central, prompting position, with the emphasis on coming from behind the attack to score the important goals that have too often eluded the strikers, especially since the departure of Eric Cantona.

'Whenever we had the opportunity last season, Ryan was used in midfield, but he was also the only left-footed player we had, so often he had to play on the wing because we needed the width. But the thing about him is that he's now got the experience to go with his talent. We can play him in a number of different roles.' Ferguson admits that Giggs has been criticised for not always playing to his fullest potential in European competition 'but you can judge his value to us when we lose him'.

He was thinking particularly of last season when United were knocked out of the Champions' League by Monaco in the quarter-final. Giggs was absent and Ferguson said the result made him realise how much United depended on a left-sided player. In fact, it made him and the coaching staff at Old Trafford realise that the squad was not deep enough.

The Welshman, however, seems to have warmed to his new task, scoring United's opening goal in their 2-0 win over Poland's LKS Lodz in the European Cup second preliminary round, first leg at Old Trafford.