Man United 1, Tott Hotspur 0: Nani gets the jump on superior Spurs to open United's account

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The Independent Football

It was not quite a reprieve for Martin Jol but the Premier League's dead man walking may, at the very least, be able to claim a stay of execution on this evidence. A first competitive goal from Nani snatched victory for Manchester United, but only after two of the closest penalty decisions against Tottenham had prevented them from embarrassing the defending champions.

Sir Alex Ferguson's side may have their first league victory of the new season, but they will not need to be told that this was not Premier League-winning form. They relied on the referee, Howard Webb, calling two ludicrously tight decisions correctly to deny Spurs two penalties and even then they were besieged in the dying minutes of the game.

Jol's side did not do enough for a first Tottenham victory at Old Trafford since December 1989, but his team posed enough questions to leave the pitch to rapturous applause from their own fans.

Another day in the chaotic life of Tottenham – and it began with yet another vote of confidence from the board in their embattled manager, Jol. With four of them to his name in the space of a week, the Dutchman must now lay claim to some kind of record for any

manager who has found himself on the brink of the sack.

Yesterday's was unusual in that it came from the vice-chairman, Paul Kemsley, previously one of the most hawkish among those on the board petitioning for a change of manager. As one of the Spurs delegation photographed in Seville a week last Friday with Juande Ramos, the Seville manager, Kemsley has been the focus of much of the recent flak and his explanation for his visit to Spain will not go down as the most convincing testament in recent English football history.

It was the first time Kemsley had spoken of his involvement in the episode and his defence that he was there formulating a "contingency" plan in the event of Jol leaving rang particularly hollow. In fact, it smacked of a little desperation on the part of a Tottenham board, which changed its mind at the last minute last week. For the chairman, Daniel Levy, who was with Kemsley at Old Trafford yesterday, that growing unease will not have been soothed by the fervour with which Jol's name was sung by the Spurs fans before the game.

"In Jol we trust" read the banner in the away end in case anyone had missed the point. And it was in his young players that Jol placed his faith at such a crucial time in his career – giving a debut to the new £10m signing Gareth Bale, just 18, and a start in midfield for the 20-year-old Tom Huddlestone. But Jol was not the only manager with problems.

"A mountain to climb right from the beginning," was how Sir Alex Ferguson described in his programme notes United's worst start to a Premier League season in 15 years. There was precious little in the first half to persuade him that the journey will be anything but rocky.

Certainly not when Robbie Keane shivered Edwin van der Sar's crossbar with a shot within the first 20 seconds of the match. And not when a flustered Rio Ferdinand lost concentration on 20 minutes and it required a late lunge from Nemanja Vidic to stop Dimitar Berbatov getting a shot in on goal.

Edgy and lacking a definitive force in attack, United were by no means the dominant side. Carlos Tevez's preference for dropping deep does not work well in a 4-3-3 formation and Nani is starting to look like a luxury in a team who, increasingly, cannot afford one. "Missing players, however important they are, don't miss chances," Ferguson wrote, refusing to blame his injuries and suspension. But the more his side fail to create those opportunities, the greater the cause for concern

Amid the constant support offered towards Jol, Tottenham's fans also gave their backing to Paul Robinson, the England goalkeeper who previously had a week to forget. He did not disappoint, excelling at his speciality – the close-struck shot – when he clawed away an effort from Ferdinand. Paul Scholes missed from close range when he struck a ball from Ryan Giggs that he never expected to reach him over the crossbar.

For all the chanting for Jol, it was telling that Tottenham's support never turned upon their own board – an indication of just how complex the situation has become. Even the most one-eyed Jol loyalist would have to acknowledge the investment in players, especially the amount spent on Bale, who also attracted interest from United.

Strong, brave and unafraid to push himself on an exalted stage, Bale looks like a fine prospect. But by the closing stages of the first half it was more telling just how United had deteriorated as an attacking force.

Around the hour, it was the home side's defence that was faced with dissolution in a period of chaos, first when a lamentable pass from Ferdinand found Bale in midfield and he played in Berbatov. What followed was undoubtedly a collision between the Tottenham striker and Vidic, but whether it was intended to fell the Bulgarian was open to debate. Television replays showed Vidic was not looking at his opponent when he fell into him – and without the aid of any second look, referee Webb waved play on.

It was a devilishly difficult decision and even on the floor Berbatov flicked the ball goalwards, forcing Ferdinand to chase back and clear off the line. Faced with reasonable doubt, it seemed that Webb made the right call but the tension was compounded when the referee was faced with another a minute later.

This time the decision was even trickier, a goalbound shot from Berbatov in the area appearing to catch Wes Brown's hand. However, the replay showed it struck his chest, and once again Webb waved away the appeals which were especially forceful second time around. The week after Rob Styles' aberration at Anfield, Webb made two excellent decisions.

To top it all for Tottenham, Nani scored four minutes later. Little more than peripheral up until then, the winger picked a ball up 25 yards out, spun round to face the goal and hit a shot that clipped Tevez's shoulder on the way in. It proved a fortunate escape for United, although at 10th in the table after four games they are still struggling up the cliff face.