James Lawton: Controversy of Nani goal merely papers over Manchester United's cracks

It was a decent win against a decent team but United must know they have everything to prove

West Bromwich Albion once scored a goal to damage Leeds United's title chances severely from an outrageously offside position. Everyone went berserk, especially the fans, and there was a subsequent ground closure.

Now that was a real firestorm, one that suddenly crackled in the memory when Luis Nani scored, whatever the rights and wrongs of the circumstances, a truly ludicrous but decisive second goal for Manchester United.

The trouble with this was that, as full-blown controversies go, it was lacking a crucial element. No one really had much reason to care.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp made the best show of it, declaring that referee Mark Clattenburg was guilty of a massive cock-up and that the match had ended farcically. But even he seemed to accept, implicitly, that a season could hardly have been said to have been changed when the United player, having moments earlier fondled the ball after being denied a penalty, bounced to his feet and popped the ball into the net after Spurs goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, ignored the first law of the football catechism: play to the whistle.

As Redknapp conceded, the chances were United would have won anyway. This was a conviction that could only harden around the disappearance of Rafael van der Vaart in the second half – and the absence of the injured Jermain Defoe, who might just have exploited the sheer intelligence of the £8m steal-of-the-year Dutchman and his side-kick, Luka Modric.

The absence of Van der Vaart and Defoe is cruelly timed for the arrival of European champions Internazionale at White Hart Lane tomorrow night but there was some comfort for Redknapp in that Gareth Bale did inject into a nicely controlled but too often soporific Spurs performance a few moments of that force and passion which came so close to ransacking San Siro two weeks ago.

Bale, like the spasmodically dynamic Nani, at least threatened to lift this match into something close to its billing: a collision between two teams desperate not to lose touch with the formidably programmed, pace-setting champions Chelsea.

Chelsea, we were told, were at less than their most imperious best in denying Blackburn Rovers, not to mention Big Sam Allardyce another burst of bragging rights, and United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who naturally doled out the blame for the fiasco of the goal squarely into the hands of the anguished Gomes, could fairly claim a successful mission. As far as it went, that is.

This is to say, it was a performance of small victories.

Nemanja Vidic, who is confidently giving the clothes of captaincy a lived-in look, put Robbie Keane in his back pocket and scored a headed goal of unanswerable precision when Nani flighted in an optimum level free-kick.

Darren Fletcher was at his best, supremely functional and so a key factor in United's ability to contain even the best of Van der Vaart, with the conspicuous exception of the occasion when the latter quite magisterially made room for himself before clipping a 20-yard shot against a post.

What we didn't get though was possibly something that Ferguson hoped for most – an unequivocal statement for everyone, and not least the watching Wayne Rooney, that his team were back in the old groove of competing seriously at the top of the English game.

No doubt there were a few moments drifting in that direction. Rooney's assumption that he now only has to look at his pay slip to get an overwhelming sense of indispensability was challenged once or twice by the natural intelligence of his highly promising understudy, Javier Hernandez.

The journey of the youngster's parents from Mexico went unrewarded with one of those creative goal strikes which have caused such a stir in recent weeks, but they saw plenty of evidence that their Little Pea is ripening nicely.

Beside him, Dimitar Berbatov promised rather more than he achieved but again there were some silky notes and certainly United can feel reasonably confident that the goals department can hold out well enough until Rooney eventually returns with some serious intentions.

Still required, though, is convincing backing of Ferguson's weekend assertion that the reins are again firmly in his hands and that his playing resources are strong enough for him to ignore the advice of Rooney, who Ferguson admitted will be out of action for around five weeks, to draw up a shopping list for the January transfer window.

On this evidence, there is still much room for discussion in the jury room.

Nani, we know now, can win matches but there is still a demand for anxious speculation about the location of his head when he runs out on the field. On this occasion it was mostly in the right place, and unquestionably when he put in his beautiful set-piece cross and quick-wittedly punished the confusion which gripped the Spurs goalkeeper so disastrously.

These moments, to give him his due, made the vital difference between the teams and there is no doubt that United have become critically dependent on such interventions from a player who so recently seemed to represent serious overinvestment.

With a price tag of £18m weighing ever more heavily around his neck, Michael Carrick certainly has to upgrade his contribution sharply if he is to enjoy a similar level of redemption. There was a point – it was in the middle of the season before last – when the former West Ham player seemed worth every cent. He had poise and vision and there were a growing bite and assurance to his passing.

Such authority seemed to belong to another age as United once again delivered the ultimate rebuke to the young players who some time ago were expected to storm the future – and brought on Paul Scholes.

It was a decent win against a decent team but United, like Carrick, must know at this late hour they still have everything to prove.

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