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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried