Howard's Beginning, new chapter for United

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The popular perception is that issues at both ends of a league table can effectively be settled over Easter, but since teams ended the heavy-legged torture of playing on Good Friday, the following day and Easter Monday as well, there have been more points to be won - and lost - over Christmas and the new year.

Even with New Year's Day left blank and fixtures held over until the following midweek, an FA Cup third-round tie in the middle still ensures that clubs will turn out six times in 21 days. It is a time when size (of squad) matters: Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri will be rubbing his hands and ringing the changes; Arsenal's Arsène Wenger must hope to avoid injuries; at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson is confident that he has the back-up to cope now that Rio Ferdinand is free, ironically, for the whole of that extended holiday period.

Ferdinand's understudy, Wes Brown, is almost fit enough to return and will have another specially organised game this week. Paul Scholes is back and scoring after his groin operation, and while Ruud van Nistelrooy, like Thierry Henry, remains irreplaceable, there is abundant cover in midfield for the quintet of matches beginning away to Tottenham today.

Another position that causes Ferguson no concern, after bringing sleepless nights at the end of last season, is goalkeeper. Ignoring the boys' night out against West Bromwich Albion in the Carling Cup, United have won nine games out of 10. Only six goals have been conceded in that period, a tribute in part to Tim Howard, the American net-minder who has surprised even his admirers by settling into the physical English game so quickly. It was Tony Coton, United's goalkeeping coach, who first came across him, noting that his US club, New York MetroStars, had sold the revered Tony Meola because they had such confidence in his deputy.

"We watched some videos and he was outstanding," said Ferguson, "So I sent Tony back there with orders to get it done. It's his first season, but his progress has been fantastic. You're expecting him to have a blip at some stage, but he's got better and better." United were well aware that the player suffered from a mild form of Tourette's Syndrome, but Ferguson has noted only an occasional tic, "none of the swearing thing". "That's just you!" observed a brave journalist on Friday.

United had reason to be grateful for Howard's elasticity in last week's Man-chester derby game, when a 3-1 victory would have been much less comfortable - and might conceivably have evaporated altogether - but for his saves in each half from Robbie Fowler, arching backwards, and then Nicolas Anelka, at closest range.

Ferguson admires not only that sort of athletic ability but also the will to win that he has also noted in goalkeeping compatriots such as Tottenham's Kasey Keller and Blackburn's Brad Friedel. "They [Americans] are an athletic, agile race. You see the spring Tim's got. A lot of them play basketball, which possibly helps. And they don't believe they can lose, that's their upbringing." Kindred spirits, then, of the United manager.

The recent history of today's fixture holds no fear for his team, who have won the last four meetings, scoring 12 goals in the process. Two years ago it was the famous comeback from 3-0 down to 5-3 up at White Hart Lane, and last season's meetings were each significant in their own way.

Early on, it now seems ludicrous to report, concerns were being expressed about Van Nistelrooy's goalscoring, his winner at Old Trafford being only his second of the season, both from penalties, in the first seven matches. By the time of the return in London he had reached 40, and United's 2-0 win on the same weekend that Arsenal lost a two-goal lead at Bolton was a decisive step to the championship. This weekend, the fixture computer has rather unimaginatively thrown up the same set of matches again, with the pressure now on United to keep pace.

Spurs, meanwhile, remain inconsistent under David Pleat, with results reminiscent of bygone days, such as winning 5-2 (against Wolves) then losing 4-0 (at Newcastle). Ferguson appreciates the London club's traditions, which he believes coincide with those of his own: "The expectation from Tottenham is always to have an attacking team that play good football, and all our games over the years with them have been that way. The Tottenham fans expect that. I've known David Pleat a long time and he's a real football man."

Add the furious sense of grievance that United will feel and it all suggests that, American net-minders or not, the game will not be one of the Premiership's goalless draws, whose number already exceeds the total for the whole of last season.