The elements raged as if trying to shake the foundations around Old Trafford - not an infrequent occurrence these days - and although they succeeded in demolishing some scaffolding Manchester United finally secured solace from their storms. Whichever Gods they have angered of late were, maybe only temporarily, appeased. If the analogy casts Sir Alex Ferguson as some latter-day Lear, and, in sporting heritage it's not too far-fetched a thought, then surely Rio Ferdinand is his fool for, at the very least, being so foolish.
The £29m player sat in the directors' box, head resting on his hands like an incarnation of "The Thinker". He had plenty on his mind especially when, at times, it appeared United's defensive failings might undo them. Instead they achieved their first victory in five games and their first clean sheet in 11 courtesy of sublime goals from Ryan Giggs and the substitutes Cristiano Ronaldo and David Bellion. Giggs, with Roy Keane and the restored Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, provided the brio and ballast that has been so lacking. After the raggedness, came the ruggedness. Over-rugged, at times, for Tottenham Hotspur's acting manager David Pleat who complained about "shirt-pulling" and a clumsy challenge by Wes Brown on Jermain Defoe that went unpunished. "He might have been sent off," said Pleat who maintained that the two late goals created a "false impression". "They may have had some indifferent results," he said of United. "But they still have good players."
Their response was timely. Next up for United are successive matches against Arsenal who will not be so easily dismissed as their north London neighbours. For Ferdinand there was a bitter symmetry. This season's reverse fixture on 21 December came two days after his eight-month ban for missing a drugs test was issued. This game came two days after his appeal was dismissed.
Ferguson, unsurprisingly, made changes after the traumas of last weekend's derby defeat although his options were reduced. "I picked the team that was available," he said although he confirmed that goalkeeper Tim Howard would be "mentally" rested for the next few games. His midfield was recast with Solskjaer making a first start since August.
In his programme notes Ferguson had included a rare mea culpa, of sorts, admitting there had been "distractions" and conceding "we have certainly dropped too far back to put any real pressure on Arsenal". There was also the usual sea of belligerence. No "meltdown", "a season of change", that sort of stuff. It came in waves. "The empire is not crumbling," he said. "Neither am I cracking up and feeling the pressure." In truth that last bit sounded more like the statement of someone who was doing just that.
Still there appeared to be the comfort of facing opponents who carried with them an atrocious record on this ground, losing their last eight visits and having to delve back into the 1980s for a victory; a sequence as anaemic as their lillywhite shirts. Efforts on goal were spare. Nevertheless, initially at least, the threat from Defoe and Robbie Keane was apparent. Interplay after nine minutes forged a chance for Christian Ziege who headed wide, while the nervousness in the United defence was raw. It should have been calmed as early as the 18th minute after a run from deep by Giggs picked out Ruud van Nistelrooy in the area. A goal appeared imminent but after he rounded Kasey Keller the ball held up and he was crowded out.
The momentum, dictated by Keane, grew. Diego Forlan struck the side-netting, a Paul Scholes drive smashed into a defender while Mauricio Taricco retrieved as Van Nistelrooy broke the line again. Finally the dam burst. On the half-hour a low cross from Solskjaer was flicked deftly by Giggs, who had allowed the ball to run across him, into the net.
It was the kind of delivery they had so craved, and missed, although it did not embolden their own defence. A shot from distance from Stephen Carr bounced up but was messily fielded by Roy Carroll while confusion opened the way for Dean Marney - a surprise inclusion - who was wasteful. That was as nothing compared to the profligacy of Forlan, racking up miss after miss with his strike partner. Immediately after the break he allowed the ball, clumsily, to thud off his knee when Keane's centre had bypassed Keller. Giggs, thriving and earning fulsome tributes from Ferguson, slalomed into the area to draw another save.
Pleat rolled the dice, with Stèphane Dalmat and Jamie Redknapp introduced. The former provided a sure-footed directness which was almost capitalised upon by Michael Brown. His skimming shot was, however, well held. The tempo increased as Spurs sensed, for all the pressure they had faced, the game was far from decided.
At the other end Van Nistelrooy got his angles wrong before Forlan forced a fine tip-over. It appeared a second goal would remain frustratingly out-of-reach until Keane snapped into another tackle to free Ronaldo who, from 25 yards, crashed a superb right-footed shot from the angle past Keller and in off the far post. It was the 89th minute but it was not over. In injury time a clever through ball from Giggs - "sensational" said his manager - found Bellion and he cut inside the area to steady himself and finish joyously. Order restored.
Manchester United 3 Tottenham Hotspur 0
Giggs 30, Ronaldo 89, Bellion 90
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 67,634Reuse content