Manchester United battle to earn point at Tottenham
Tottenham Hotspur 0 Manchester United 0: If this Premier League season of shock results and unpredictable twists is to reward one old, indestructible virtue of English football, then it is surely the capacity to defend heroically when chips are down and backs are against walls.
They were not the best team at White Hart Lane yesterday, certainly not in attack, and they enjoyed just 40 per cent of the possession. For the last 15 minutes, they were reduced to 10 men, which ruined the plan formulated on the United bench to bring on Paul Scholes for the last period of the game. The game's most creative player was not in a red shirt – that was the superb Luka Modric who ran the midfield.
But for sheer bloody-mindedness, for chasing and toiling and for the judicious block, tackle and header, United matched Harry Redknapp's new Premier League force over 90 frantic minutes. Nemanja Vidic ran Modric close for the game's best player and Rio Ferdinand was not too far behind in third. As long as United have those two players shoring up the centre of their defence, a 19th league title remains a real possibility.
It was their eighth draw away from home, a remarkable record which means they reach 21 games in the league season without defeat. This is not a classic United team like Ferguson's first great title-winning side of 1993 and 1994 and neither does it leave the opposition scorched like the previous incarnation with Cristiano Ronaldo, but it has retained a familiar durability.
Top of the league on goal difference from Manchester City, United battled to keep Spurs out yesterday, but they prevailed. For years, this has been the kind of fixture Ferguson's team have expected to mop up without too much struggle, but times have changed. The gap has closed to the point where it was hard to get a cigarette paper between these two sides.
Up against the immovable object of Ferdinand and Vidic was Modric and, to a lesser extent, the likes of Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Peter Crouch. Even when Rafael Da Silva was sent off, it was a job to break United down. It was not one fewer opponent that Spurs required, rather it was a flash of brilliance, or a slight misjudgement from one of United's defenders, to let them in. It never came.
Rafael's red card for a second booking was the wrong decision by Mike Dean. He ran across the back of Benoît Assou-Ekotto, where toe and heal made the slightest of contact. This being a game played at a remorseless pace, the Spurs left-back went down and Dean overreacted, erroneously believing he had seen an intentional trip.
Rafael went off, first stopping to berate Dean and then, as he left, booting a pitchside microphone. Until then he had enjoyed a decent game. He had not stopped Bale every time the left winger ran at him – no one does – but he handled him as best he could and even went past Bale in the opposite direction in the first half. Even with the extra man, Spurs struggled to make inroads. For such a compelling game there were precious few chances, the best of the second half was a shot stroked just over the bar by Van der Vaart on 81 minutes. Spurs created more before the break but they never managed to put a cross on Crouch's head and the England striker never really escaped the attentions of Vidic.
It was in midfield that Spurs dominated, Modric happy to receive the ball, as Redknapp later pointed out, in the most unpromising of situations. There is nowhere that the Croat will not take the ball to feet and twist and feint to make a bit of space for the pass. He was exceptional and Ferguson, that long-time admirer, must be wondering if it is time for his third raid in five years upon Spurs' squad.
The United manager switched his formation to 4-3-3 in the second half and introduced Luis Anderson to give his midfield a touch more bite. Wayne Rooney was moved out to the right wing in a poor afternoon's work from him. He made space for a shot that was saved by Heurelho Gomes on 52 minutes but this was one of those days when he was outshone by others.
Up in the directors' box, David Beckham will have considered how he might have fitted into this game. Given the speed and the fury of it he will not have been the only one wondering what place there is for a 35-year-old dead-ball specialist. Redknapp made one change, bringing on Jermain Defoe for Wilson Palacios, and if Beckham had been available he might have felt more a liability than a strength.
On 67 minutes, it was Modric who came sliding back into his own area to clear a cross from Darren Fletcher. Six minutes later Vidic chased Modric back into his own half, way out of position. It was that kind of game – ferociously competitive, no quarter given and requiring of full and total concentration on both sides.
As for the controversy, Vidic did get a little too eager to grab handfuls of his opponent's shirt, especially Van der Vaart's in the United area during the first half. He did the same on Defoe with four minutes left. But in the first incident, the United captain was far too surreptitious to be caught by anyone but the television cameras
The best moment of the first half came from a classic piece of work from Bale on the left. From Michael Dawson's low, driven pass he went inside and then out again going past first Rafael and then Fletcher. His cross was met by Van der Vaart who put his header the wrong side of the near post.
Redknapp's side gave it everything they have and by the end he had taken off a holding midfielder for a striker to try to win the game. But this is Manchester United and year after year they find different ways to defy their opponents year after year. Redknapp said afterwards that there is not much between the two sides and he was right. But only one of them have won this title before.