Beckham's drive cuts at the heart of Spurs' faithful

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Online
Maybe it was because he was a Londoner, but there seemed something especially cruel about the superlative goal with which David Beckham decided a supercharged White Hart Lane encounter yesterday. If you were a Londoner, that was.

The curving, 30-yard drive he produced out of nowhere quarter of an hour from time was of similar quality to that with which he had killed Tottenham off a week earlier in the FA Cup. It was the footballing equivalent of an ace from the player who used, once, to train with Spurs.

Until that moment, it seemed that a fervent home effort, fervently appreciated by a 33,026 crowd, would be rewarded with a point towards the only remaining ambition at White Hart Lane - a place in Europe.

When Rory Allen headed a predatory equaliser to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's opening goal following a corner two minutes from half-time, capitalising on a towering header from Tottenham's pounds 3.7m midweek signing from Cagliari, Ramon Vega, it set up a second half of increasingly frantic endeavour.

But Beckham's decisive intervention, abetted by Ryan Giggs's drifting run across him which created the necessary space, left Tottenham frustrated for a second Sunday running. It also established the champions in second place, just two points behind Liverpool and with a game in hand.

Not that that was going to lure the United manager, Alex Ferguson, into anything even resembling a rash statement. "We've stumbled to second top," he burred. "Stumbled there. There are hard days ahead..."

In terms of demeanour, you might have thought his team was facing relegation. God knows how he would react in such a circumstance - perhaps with chirpy Glaswegian humour. In fairness, however, he is juggling with injuries just like any other Premiership manager at this stage of the season.

With Phil Neville sidelined with glandular fever, and Dennis Irwin hamstrung, Ferguson was grateful to be able to recall Gary Pallister to his defence after the England man had recovered from a back injury.

However, he was less heartened to see another defender, Ronny Johnsen, limp off with an Achilles tendon problem 12 minutes from time. And Johnsen's defensive partner, David May, will undergo a hernia operation on Saturday.

"As one comes back, another goes out," he observed dolefully.

The announcement that the kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes to allow visiting fans to get into the ground allowed those already present a second chance to see the pre-match, big screen entertainment.

Understandably, the hosts chose to replay the replay of their 4-1 League victory here last season rather than moving on to the previous Sunday's FA Cup defeat.

Tottenham, with six regular first teamers absent through illness or injury, had made three changes from that side, welcoming back their Norwegian forward, Steffen Iversen, after flu, but losing their Danish midfielder, Allan Nielsen, to the same complaint.

It seemed a reasonable swap on the evidence of the first half, as Iversen, who gave Pallister a thoroughly awkward time on his return, fired several dangerous sighting shots on Peter Schmeichel's goal.

It seemed he had found his range after 19 minutes when he shrugged off Pallister's challenge and beat Schmeichel from 25 yards, only to see the ball cannon back off the underside of the bar. Andy Sinton, following up, hit almost the same spot with his effort before the ball was scrambled clear.

But within three minutes, against the run of play, the visitors went ahead through a superbly smart one-two between Eric Cantona and Solskjaer, which sent the latter player scampering into the six-yard area to score with an acutely angled shot across Ian Walker.

United might have doubled their advantage two minutes later when Solskjaer's little nudge forward sent Ryan Giggs through in an almost identical position, but Giggs, strangely detached throughout in the left wing-back position, was not quite equal to the challenge, pulling the ball across the face of the goal.

The tempo of the game, frantic to start with, seemed to rise even further and Paul Scholes and Colin Calderwood, went into the book for fouls before Tottenham raised a huge roar with a goal that was no less than they deserved for their efforts. A corner won by David Howells, who rose manfully to yesterday's challenge in midfield, was taken by Sinton and produced the high point of an impressive debut by Vega, a Swiss international defender who marked his current team-mate Teddy Sheringham during Euro 96. He beat two United defenders to the ball and Allen, standing in front of the keeper, reacted well to divert it into the net with his head.

The second half was no less heated, with another five players going into the book - Vega, Allen, Iversen and Edinburgh for Tottenham; Keane - booed throughout like a pantomime villain after his abrasive display the previous week - for United.

As the match drew to a close, the visiting supporters chanted: "Are you watching, Merseyside?" Liverpool will be able to feel the breath on their shoulder, and for all Ferguson's determinedly downbeat comments, United appear to be on another roll.

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