Football Commentary: Ince-perfect United halt Spurs' flight of fantasy: Tottenham cut down to size

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The Independent Online
'GLORY, Glory Hallelujah' had no sooner died in Tottenham throats than 'Ooh Aah Cantona', crooned to the tune of the 'Marseillaise', drifted over White Hart Lane. As well as being homage to an absent friend, the refrain was a coded warning to the rest of the Premiership.

Its message was plain. Even without Eric Cantona, United were too resolute, organised and confident in their own strengths to be befuddled by the tactical conundrum presented by Jurgen Klinsmann and his new cohorts. Imagine then, the song seemed to say, how much more formidable the champions will be once the player Alex Ferguson calls 'mon genius' returns.

The first test of such logic comes on Wednesday. Not for Ferguson the once-conventional wisdom about sticking with a winning team. The United manager made it clear after a 1-0 victory that the suspension-free Cantona will be in his starting line-up for the visit of Wimbledon, the last side to beat United back in April.

Whoever makes way for him - and the odds must be on Brian McClair - it will certainly not be Paul Ince. Steve Bruce may have scored the goal and sported the captain's armband, but it was the England midfielder who wore United's heart on his sleeve.

A one-man department of tirade and industry, his tongue often as sharp as his tackling, Ince led by example Ossie Ardiles's born- again team ultimately could not match. Klinsmann has been touted, a tad prematurely, as the signing of the summer; Ince, who spent the World Cup weeks haggling over terms, was unquestionably the re-signing.

A third straight success for Spurs' 'new' system - a diamond-shaped midfield allowing for five-man attacks (seven when the full-backs come forward) - might have encouraged a fling among those locked into the restrictive practices of 4-4-2. Instead, the afternoon ended with United still unbeaten by Spurs since 1990, and a familiar look to the table.

After just two weeks, the top three places are filled by the clubs who occupied them at the end of last season. Although Spurs' six- point penalty will not be recorded until May, they are effectively nine points behind Newcastle already.

Perhaps it was that realisation, after all the hype and hope generated by two Klinsmann-inspired wins, which prompted the anti- Ardiles sentiments on Radio Five's Saturday evening phone-in. The callers' memories must be as short as their tolerance levels. Compared with the shambles of last winter, when Spurs had the joint worst home record in all four divisions, the transformation is dramatic, the potential vast.

Ferguson used the word 'refreshing'; 'daring' would have been equally apposite. For instance, the attempt by Darren Anderton and Teddy Sheringham to recreate the famous free-kick routine by Coventry's Willie Carr and Ernie Hunt may not have brought a goal, but it showed for the first time since Paul Gascoigne assumed the Glenn Hoddle mantle an element of fantasy in Spurs' football.

The unlikely catalyst for such un-Teutonic improvisation was relatively subdued. Klinsmann is no Cantona, whose ability both to make and take goals sets him apart, and it was noticeable that his best spell came after Micky Hazard replaced the token defensive midfielder, Colin Calderwood, in the second half.

United had by then established control through Ince and gone in front when Bruce's header exploited Ian Walker's slip at a Ryan Giggs corner. The ball entered the net by an unguarded post, highlighting defensive slackness Ardiles hopes to rectify with an imminent signing.

For a textbook example of disciplined rearguard action, the Spurs manager ought to study United's performance. Rather than being dragged out of position by what Ferguson described as the 'interchange' between the home forwards, the red line held their positions. On the only occasion Bruce was pulled wide, with 14 minutes left, he fouled Ilie Dumitrescu. Peter Schmeichel condemned Sheringham to a second spot-kick failure in four days.

Condensed on Match of the Day, Spurs' near misses gave the impression that United struggled. In truth, their keeper hardly made a save between touching over a second-minute volley by Sheringham and the penalty.

'Tottenham take risks pushing men forward, so you have to defend well, which we did,' Ferguson said. 'We spoke at half-time about Barmby being their third striker and decided the best way to counter it was to keep a tight back four.'

His opposite number, meanwhile, hailed Dumitrescu's improving form and the way Sol Campbell, an England centre-back of the near future, policed Mark Hughes. He was wrong, though, to claim 'Schmeichel was their best player, which says everything'. The idealist in Ardiles apparently blinds him to the merits of ball- winners, though Ince's contribution was as much about distribution as disruption.

Ironically, the only yellow cards flourished were at Giggs and Anderton. Flair players are berated for not tackling back, yet when the pair did so, clumsily rather than maliciously, the referee reacted as if faced with Norman Hunter and Peter Storey.

Ferguson, purring over Ince's perpetual motion and acknowledging the influence of 'the German lad', preferred to savour a good day in the sun. 'It was all positive stuff out there, and look at the other results - goals all over the place,' he said. 'Maybe we're saving ours.'

The temptation, strong but respectfully resisted, was to complete the sentence with 'until Cantona gets back'.

Goal: Bruce (49) 0-1.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-1-2-1-2): Walker; Kerslake, Nethercott, Campbell, Edinburgh; Calderwood (Hazard, 58); Anderton, Dumitrescu; Barmby; Klinsmann, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Mabbutt, Day (gk).

Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; May, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, McClair, Sharpe, Giggs; Hughes. Substitutes not used: Butt, Dublin, Pilkington (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Mid-Glamorgan).