Juande Ramos professed last night that he was too wrapped up in this match to think of transfer negotiations with Jonathan Woodgate, a player who would have come in handy on an afternoon when Tottenham's makeshift defence self-destructed.
Perhaps it was because he had deeper thoughts to dwell on – like how long it will be before his side are offered a better opportunity to win at a ground where triumph has been absent for nearly two decades now.
Rarely, since Gary Lineker's 1989 goal last taught the north Londoners how it feels to win at Old Trafford, have Spurs players arrived here so energised, their fans' reminders of the Carling Cup demolition of Arsenal ringing in their ears, and then they were offered a handful of gilt-edged chances. But Jermaine Jenas spurned the best two and kept United going until the defence Ramos had put together came unstuck too, when Michael Dawson sealed his side's defeat by throwing a hand at the ball which had just looped over his head into Wayne Rooney's path.
Ramos did not waste time dwelling on Dawson's sending-off, which even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was "harsh", or the ensuing penalty which Cristiano Ronaldo converted.
But he had it right when he said the match hung on "the chances we had which we didn't put away." Spurs have much to cheer them into their ownward journey under the Spaniard. Last week's "Arsenal job" meant that chants of "we're going to Wembley," were still ringing across Old Trafford as the side trudged off the pitch. Dimitar Berbatov, an immense force here, will provide hope of Uefa Cup progress and so too Aaron Lennon, who sparkled at times in an impressive display. But the bad news for anyone seeking to halt United's progress in any tournament this season is that No 18 is back in business.
An almighty roar went up when Paul Scholes showed on the touchline a little after an hour and his contribution revealed why.
Within a minute, Scholes had provided two effortless through passes – the second of which would have been a goal assist had not Carlos Tevez fired over – and by the finish he was taking up a position in the penalty area, where Michael Carrick has not been found too often in his team-mate's nine-month absence. The moment that Carrick trudged off after an average contribution to make way for Scholes, the jeers of the fans he once entertained ringing in his ears, and knowing that his pitch time may now be severely curtailed, was not one of his better in football.
Scholes' arrival also coincided with the game being up for a Spurs defence which had just about prevailed until then. There had already been signs of why Woodgate's decision to choose Ramos above Kevin Keegan will be welcome when, seven minutes before the interval, Dawson failed to deal with the raking 60-yard ball from United's half.
Dawson's header fell at the feet of Ryan Giggs who shepherded it to Tevez for a sharp shot past Radek Cerny. Dawson does breathtaking diagonal passes too – his own from the Spurs half had Aaron Lennon skipping past Patrice Evra to square for Robbie Keane's goal – but the way that Edwin Van der Sar's mighty punt looped over the defender's head before he handled the ball out of Rooney's path to hand Cristiano Ronaldo a penalty suggested Ramos needs reinforcements in a hurry.
An additional gift served up for United by Radek Cerny in the closing stages gave the scoreline a flattering look. Scholes started a move involving Giggs which saw Ronaldo cut inside and hit a shot under the keeper which, despite a deflection from Steed Malbranque, the keeper should have saved. But Spurs' misses had been no less criminal, given that United showed in the third-round win over Aston Villa their habit of hitting a stride late in the game.
Jenas will be suffering most agonies this morning. He was sent through by Malbranque's diagonal pass in first-half injury time but saw his shot saved and had enough time to take three touches when Berbatov sent him clear after the break but scuffed his shot well wide. Malbranque also chipped in for Berbatov, who hit a post in the game's closing stages after Ramos had thrown together a three-man attack. Berbatov showed throughout, with his creative play and constant threat, why he looks like Ferguson's kind of player and might be on his way here this summer.
It might have been so different when Spurs were pressing in the first half.
The way that Keane stole in unmarked for their goal suggested that United's re-arranged defence – Nemanja Vidic was absent with a virus – might be as frail as their own. Keane released Jenas down the right after only three minutes and he slipped past Evra, who was to have a difficult afternoon, but crossed into nowhere.
Berbatov directed a strong header goalwards from Lennon's corner but Rooney, who was everywhere, headed off the line. United had their chances – Rooney and Tevez found the side netting in either half – but as their manager observed, it was not one of their better days.
It says everything for United's threat when Ronaldo has an off day but still scores twice to wrap things up and Ferguson knew it. "My experience of cup ties is...sometimes you're scrappy, sometimes you're brilliant but the bottom line is you're in the hat tomorrow at 1.30," he said. And so they shall be.
Goals: Keane (24) 0-1; Tevez (38) 1-1; Ronaldo pen (69) 2-1; Ronaldo (88) 3-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra (Simpson, 90); Ronaldo, Hargreaves, Carrick (Scholes, 64), Giggs; Rooney, Tevez (Anderson, 81). Substitutes not used: Nani, Simpson, Kuszczak (gk)
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Cerny; Tainio (Defoe, 81), Huddlestone, Dawson, Lee (Gunter, 59); Lennon (Boateng, 71), O'Hara, Jenas, Malbranque; Berbatov, Keane. Substitutes not used: Kaboul, Boateng, Defoe. Robinson (gk).
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Manchester United Evra.
Sent off: Dawson (68).
Man of the match: Berbatov.
Attendance: 75,369.Reuse content