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.

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own