It was not quite as late as last week but Manchester United had their supporters biting nails and lips again before unleashing the roar that greeted Nani's deftly chipped goal nine minutes from the end of a hitherto anti-climactic game. Five minutes after that, Ryan Giggs's second expertly taken penalty enabled proper celebrations to begin at a return to the top of the Premier League by two points, before Chelsea's home game with Stoke today.
Until then the sportswriter who stood to win £10,000 after backing Tottenham to beat Arsenal, Chelsea and United in successive games had been given a decent run for his £250 investment, albeit more through the home side's deficiencies than anything his favourite team achieved.
The champions were poor for a long time, with Dimitar Berbatov once again finding the lone striker's role not to his taste in Wayne Rooney's absence. He may have to get used to it for the remaining two games unless Sir Alex Ferguson again throws in Federico Macheda, whose neat pass as a substitute yesterday set up Nani's goal. On the positive side, Paul Scholes, last weekend's hero, was as influential as anyone and Nemanja Vidic stood firm at the back.
Not that Spurs were particularly troublesome. Ledley King's goal, which Ferguson felt should have been disallowed for pushing, was their second serious attempt. Harry Redknapp claimed he had sent out a team to "have a real go" but his decision to play the left-footed Benoît Assou-Ekotto at right-back backfired when he conceded the penalty for the first goal with an awkward challenge, after being worried all match by Nani.
"We weren't strong enough to get hold of the ball up front," Redknapp said. "It was a real opportunity for us today with no Rooney and Rio [Ferdinand] but one or two were way off the pace." He could easily have been referring to his two strikers, Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko, neither of whom achieved anything.
Tottenham retain hopes of finishing fourth, their away game with Manchester City on Wednesday week looking to be the decisive fixture. Chelsea will be expected to beat Stoke today and restore their one-point lead; at present their goal difference is superior to United's by only one.
It is all too close to call, which may explain why the first half here was so tense. For almost half an hour, a corner-kick was an event, and the only incidents worth noting were smart tackles by Michael Dawson – otherwise less impressive yesterday than King – and Gareth Bale.
Suddenly United awoke. On a pitch sometimes looking as slippery as Wembley, Bale fell over, allowing Berbatov a shot from close in that King valiantly blocked. The young Welshman, starting at left-back rather than in midfield, was then caught out by Antonio Valencia's burst inside him to shoot at Heurelho Gomes.
As the tempo increased, Berbatov and Patrice Evra volleyed wide, though the latter appeared to be suffering; at the start of the second half he was sick on the pitch, recovering to play a key part in the move that finally led to a goal. It followed Berbatov's best moment, a driving run into the penalty area and clever backheel for Evra, who was clearly and clumsily fouled by Assou-Ekotto. Ferguson had allowed Giggs and Nani to decide between them who took any penalties; the captain accepted responsibility even though, extraordinarily, he had never scored one before in the history of the Premier League. A perfect shot low to Gomes's right defeated the goalkeeper's dive.
Spurs introduced Aaron Lennon for a 20 minute run-out and unexpectedly found themselves back in the game. King leapt highest to meet Bale's corner, heaving himself above Michael Carrick and his header dropped inside the post where Rafael da Silva should have been stationed.
"With 10 minutes to go we'd have taken a point," Redknapp said. They were not to be allowed any such luxury. Ferguson had sent on Macheda, one of those players far more effective as a substitute than a starter and the Italian duly played in Nani for a chip from an angle that Ferguson described in the circumstances as showing "audacity and courage".
Five minutes later a demoralised Tottenham conceded their second uncontestable penalty, this one for Wilson Palacios's lazy trip on Nani. Giggs once more took responsibility for the kick, placing it perfectly in the opposite corner. Old Trafford was able to relax at last and there was even time for an obligatory chant or two of, "We want the Glazers out."
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Scholes
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content