When asked to name his favourite English stadium other than Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson often answers that it is White Hart Lane. He politely praises the tradition and the atmosphere of the place but everyone knows what he really means: just about every time United have gone to Tottenham during the Ferguson years they have come away with a result.
Not since May 2001 have Spurs beaten United in the Premier League and even now, when they have their best team in about 30 years and players Ferguson would love to have in his side, the tale of these two clubs seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are chances, controversy, near misses and then, as sure as there is rain in Manchester, United win the game. That they win important matches when they are supposedly playing poorly is a truth accepted by the English football nation as one of United's great enduring strengths. But when you stop to examine the truth of that old assumption, it does not quite stand up to scrutiny. Playing poorly? Certainly, Spurs looked better for much of the game but it would be a stretch to describe United as poor.
There was nothing poor about Ashley Young's two decisive finishes in the second half that made all the difference after Wayne Rooney scored the first just before half-time. The England winger had struggled to get into the game until he scored his first goal on the hour and then his second, nine minutes later, was a breathtaking strike. It was another example of a United player finding that moment of skill which makes the difference in a game. It keeps United within two points of the leaders, Manchester City, and takes them one step closer to making the match between the two teams on 30 April the closest thing the game has had to a genuine title decider in a long time. No one else, Spurs included, is in with a sniff of the title now.
As for the old United-Spurs hex, a familiar narrative unfolded as soon as United nicked a goal just before half-time with Rooney's header – suddenly it was as if the whole stadium knew what was going to happen. Spurs finished the game with 57 per cent of the possession and 16 attempts at goal compared to six from United. Unfortunately for them, they also finished with two fewer goals.
Jermain Defoe's late strike was the first goal Spurs had scored since they went two up at Arsenal eight days ago and, in the meantime, they have conceded eight.