United fall in with the goal rush
Manchester United 5 Tottenham Hotspur 2
Monday 27 April 2009
So what wonderments does British football's next main midweek event have in store? Eight more goals, to add to the 16 Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have conjured up in two games over the past fortnight? It's not so inconceivable, because long after Cristiano Ronaldo had put his shirt back on and Rafael Benitez, you imagined, had jabbed the TV feed off somewhere around Leeds on the road home from Hull, the notion surfaced of Theo Walcott cutting a dash down Old Trafford's right touchline in Wednesday night's Champions League semi final first leg. It was one to keep a 67-year-old football manager awake at night.
Unassailable though Sir Alex Ferguson's side's Premier League lead is beginning to look, his defence are cursed by an unpredictability which offers a fine advertisement for the longevity of the most drawn-out season in modern times. Patrice Evra has not looked secure since encountering Aaron Lennon in the Carling Cup Final on 1 March and after another afternoon of cold sweats as the 22-year-old danced around him, he has reason to fear Arsenal's similar kind of Englishman doing him some serious damage. "I've always rated Evra as the best left-back in the league along with Ashley Cole," Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manger, said diplomatically. "But he has had problems with Aaron." Ferguson can only thank heavens that Andrei Arshavin is cup-tied for Wednesday.
Asking United to play towards the Stretford End first on Saturday evening had not, Redknapp later revealed, been part of a plan to have their defence staring into the sun, but every defender was vulnerable. Rio Ferdinand, watching Lennon's first teasing cross of the evening loop over his head, allowed Darren Bent a free hit; Nemanja Vidic, missing the next 20 minutes later, on to which Bent pounced; Rafael da Silva, loafing around near the penalty spot as the man he failed utterly to mark, Luka Modric, fastened on to Lennon's third fine ball, five yards away. Ferguson saw Rafael's hacks at Modric before referee Howard Webb did and removed him.
Howard Webb: a name to bolster Benitez's conviction that his "facts" about officials at Old Trafford were right and one whose decision to penalise Heurelho Gomes for clawing a ball away from Michael Carrick might have decided the title race. "The fourth official is stood there and what is he doing?" Redknapp said. "They ask you to sit down, don't stand outside the square and all that. I've said it for a long time that they should be there to watch the screen. Use the technology."
Video evidence would also preserve Webb from some of the more injudicious responses to his decision which was wrong but not abysmally so, given the several replays needed to unravel it. Jermaine Jenas suggested that Webb "didn't even think" and had "already made his mind up when he came out for the second half that he was going to give something. That was a prime example of a referee crumbling over pressure. The atmosphere, the occasion, the importance of the match, a lot of factors take their toll."
As sometimes happens when his side have won, Ferguson accepted the Spurs case – "they will be unhappy, I can understand that" – and though the arrival of Carlos Tevez pepped up United and Wayne Rooney's energy was indomitable in the 22 extraordinary minutes it took them to score five, the individual who most mocked football's fickleness was Dimitar Berbatov. His shirt stayed on when he scored, of course, and the goal was not majestic but any one of a dozen gracefully unlaboured moments demonstrate that genius like his cannot be measured out in drab statistics, as those who question him seem to wish it.
The angular passes which helped engineer two of the goals; a stunning first half chest cushion and swivel past Wilson Palacios; the wondrous 83rd-minute ball which sent Ronaldo scampering away for what might have been a hat-trick – all contributions from a player Viv Anderson suggested last week was a latter-day Gary Birtles, struggling to live with what Old Trafford brings. Laughable. As Ferguson reflected: "He produces moments that you say: 'that's world class.'" So much so that the club were keen to distance themselves from reports that they are to sign Milan's Kaka in the summer.
Tottenham's capitulation was horrible but there were enough individual performances to show that a Europa League place might be theirs. "I'd like to think that we will be pushing the top four with Villa and Everton next year," Redknapp said. United's challenges are more immediate so don't look away yet. It is anyone's guess what they will bring.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar; Rafael (O'Shea, 70), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher (Scholes, 61); Ronaldo, Rooney, Nani (Tevez, h-t); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Anderson, Evans, Macheda.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-1-1) Gomes; Corluka, Woodgate, King, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Palacios, Jenas, Modric (Bale, 86); Keane (Huddlestone, 87); Bent. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Hutton, Zokora, Bentley, Chimbonda.
Referee: H. Webb (S Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Tevez, Scholes, Ronaldo; Tottenham Woodgate, Jenas, Gomes.
Man of the match: Rooney
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