Football: United suffer from self-inflicted wounds

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The Independent Online
THE EVE of George Graham's wedding brought no joyous note from his old friend Alex Ferguson. Instead, blazing anger, the Tottenham manager's arm grabbed, his proffered hand left unshaken. "Sure Alex was annoyed," Graham said. "He doesn't like giving up points. That's why they don't drop many."

Sitting stony faced in United's bus after declining an opportunity to put his thoughts forward for public consumption and reports of raised voices in United's dressing-room, Ferguson was back in cup-throwing mode.

No wonder. Gary Neville sent off, four others booked, Roy Keane lucky not to join them, the protection of a two goal lead finally beyond United's depleted resources. Probably, what Ferguson had to say about all this would not have been printable anyway.

Hoarse from his own urgings on the touchline - down from the directors' box once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rapped in United's second - Graham expressed surprise at the aggressive nature of the proceedings. "We're not a physical team," he said.

In truth, this is a complaint wrapped up in compliment. Manchester United would not be where they are without the edge to their game which Graham so admires and is trying to instil at Tottenham.

"There is more to the game than ability," he said. "All the best teams can be hard when necessary." This was, unquestionably, a hard match, at times spiteful, as football can be when feuds develop out of frustration.

United's anger was initially raised by their clear conviction that David Ginola was being allowed to benefit from thespian activity. Held in check by the return from whiplash counter-attacks, it boiled over with Gary Neville's dismissal in the 39th minute for the second of two bookable offences.

Until then it looked as though Tottenham were heading for their first home defeat under Graham's demanding stewardship.

Conceding too much space in midfield, torn apart by attacks thrown at their makeshift left-back Andy Sinton, and unable to match United's verve, they would hear some harsh words during the interval.

"There was only one team in it," was Graham's half-time assessment. "We weren't competitive," he added simply.

Unsettled by Neville's dismissal and their bookings, United reorganised. Henning Berg was sent out in place of Solskjaer to play alongside Jap Stam and Ronny Johnsen was given the task of containing Ginola.

Despite Graham's insistence that there is often a downside to numerical advantage, it undoubtedly worked in Tottenham's favour when United's attacking potential was confined to occasional support for one forward, Teddy Sheringham.

Doubtless, a myopic view is that Uriah Rennie's refereeing was directly responsible for the two points United failed to secure - which would have put them on top of the Premiership for the first time this season - but some of the damage was self-inflicted.

It certainly seemed as though David Beckham left a foot in on Sinton, who quickly took revenge with a wild lunge that brought him one of Tottenham's two bookings.

All this after United had raced into a two-goal lead that emphasised their strength in depth. Unable to call on Dwight Yorke, and choosing to rest Andy Cole, they went ahead when Solskjaer pounced on a rebound from Ryan Giggs's diving header.

The best was to come. Scrambling out of their goalmouth, United launched a devastating counter-attack through Giggs, who found Beckham on the far touchline. Beckham's instant low cross was angled perfectly at the near post and Solksjaer bravely applied the finishing touch.

Forced to admire this application, Tottenham's supporters were lost in gloomy prediction until Neville's departure gave United a serious problem.

Even so, United, with Stam outstanding, held out under Tottenham's bombardment of crosses until Sol Campbell's soaring header from Darren Anderton's free-kick in the 70th minute.

United's collective failings at set-pieces were compounded by a withering of Peter Schmeichel's confidence, which was again evident when Campbell got his head to another Anderton free-kick in injury time. So to Ferguson's barely restrained fury. "I'm sure we'll be having a few words later," Graham said. Like, "congratulations George, have a nice wedding?"

He should be so lucky.

Goals: Solskjaer (11) 0-1; Solskjaer (18) 0-2; Campbell (70) 1-2; Campbell (90) 2-2.

Tottenham Hotspur: (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Young, Campbell, Sinton; Fox (Allen, 82), Anderton, Nielsen, Ginola; Armstrong, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Baardsen (gk), Calderwood, Dominguez, Clemence.

Manchester United: (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Blomqvist, 86); Sheringham (Cole, 74), Solskjaer (Berg, 46). Substitutes not used: Van Der Gouw (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Sending-off: Manchester United G Neville. Bookings: Tottenham: Ferdinand, Sinton. Manchester United: G Neville (2, sent off), Johnsen, Beckham, Butt, Sheringham.

Man of the match: Campbell.

Attendance: 36,079.