On a ground where they have not won since Gary Lineker scored in 1989, Tottenham Hotspur were undone again last night, this time amid much controversy. They claimed with some justification that Nani's bizarre goal in the 84th minute should never have been allowed, the only consolation being that it was not the winner. Nemanja Vidic had effectively scored that in the first half to penalise some slack marking at a free-kick.
A free-kick was what Spurs felt they should have had as time ticked away an hour later. Nani appealed in vain for a penalty as he tussled with Younes Kaboul, then clearly handled the ball. Tottenham's goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes put it down to take a free-kick without realising firstly that the referee Mark Clattenburg had not awarded one and secondly that Nani was lurking behind him. The winger duly tapped the ball into an empty net.
It did not help Spurs' feelings of helplessness on this ground that Clattenburg was also the official when Roy Carroll scrambled Pedro Mendes' shot out from well behind the line here five years ago. Then there was the dubious penalty decision against them two seasons ago that helped turn a 2-0 half-time lead into a 5-2 defeat. To cap a bad day, Rafael van der Vaart is almost certainly out of Tuesday's key Champions' League game with the European champions Internazionale.
If there was a lesson in thecrucial incident it was the age old one of playing to the whistle; the whistle which, to Tottenham's fury, never came. Naturally the two managers took different views, both correct in their own way: Sir Alex Ferguson felt there was no reason not to play on and Harry Redknapp was equally correct in saying the officials had missed a clear handling offence.
The other undeniable fact was that after an even first half, United's later superiority merited a victory that keeps them hanging on to Chelsea's shirt tails. While cursing the late goals with which the champions and Arsenal also secured three points earlier in the day, they also had the comforting knowledge that Manchester City had unexpectedly dropped three.
If Spurs are to keep up with that quartet this season – or in the future – they need to overcome the stage fright that afflicts them away from home on the big occasions. They may have won a crucial game at City last May, effectively securing fourth place in the table, but they have for many years been unable to do the same at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates or Anfield, a run stretching now to 68 visits.
Here they adopted an adventurous approach, with two wingers and two creative players inside them, only to be undone by one set-piece. Van der Vaart was a threat until his injury but Robbie Keane did nothing to justify Redknapp's preference for a little man over a big one in Peter Crouch.
His other big decision yesterday, in deciding to play Gareth Bale rather than hold him back for Tuesday, did not pay any dividend either, the young Welshman producing only one run of the type that has characterised his thrilling season.
Redknapp said he wanted to play the ball on the ground rather than take on Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in the air, which became something of an irony when the Serbian powered in his fine headed goal after half an hour. Without Crouch, only Kaboul and Alan Hutton offered any height at set-pieces and when the former fouled Javier Hernandez out on the right, Vidic, unchallenged, met Nani's free-kick with a thump.
As ever, Tottenham looked better going forwards than backwards and were twice close to a goal before half-time. Park Ji-Sung had hit a post from 20 yards after only 75 seconds but six minutes later Van der Vaart emulatedhim from the same distance, having cut inside on to his left foot. Closer to the interval, the Dutchman pulled a corner back to Luka Modric, whose drive was turned away by the 40-year-old Edwin van der Sar.
Gomes had to be alert too, in fielding shots from Nani, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Dimitar Berbatov during a pleasingly end-to-end first period.
Home supporters, many arriving in bolshie mood after taking part in an anti-Glazer march before kick-off, enjoyed the entertainment, although it took their team some time to pick up the pace again after the interval. When they did, the much improved Nani was at the forefront of much of their best work, giving Benoît Assou-Ekotto a difficult time. Gomes clung on to his free-kick from just outside the penalty area and also held a sharp shot from the otherwise quiet Hernandez. But his starring moment, alas, was still to come.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Nani
Match rating: 6/10