For possibly the first time this season, champions Manchester United made a compelling case they can win a record fourth successive league title, even without Cristiano Ronaldo.
The most impressive element of a deserved victory that ended Tottenham's 100 per cent start to the season was United's collective purpose and energy. They have lost Ronaldo, but they appear to have gained something in his place, something that could ultimately make them an even a better side. The cult of the individual has gone, replaced by a renewed belief in the common good. Those within the United camp have been saying the loss of Ronaldo, and to a lesser extent Carlos Tevez, is of greater concern to outsiders. Players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – both of whom were outstanding against Tottenham – recognised there will be rewards to be reaped from Ronaldo's departure.
For one thing, other players will get a chance to take free-kicks again. This time it was Giggs' turn, with a superbly judged effort over the Spurs wall that dipped beyond the hands of goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini to level after Jermain Defoe's first-minute goal.
Giggs revealed afterwards players are queuing up to take free-kicks now you-know-who has left. He said: "Nani has scored at Wigan. Wayne [Rooney] wants to take some, and myself. We have been practising a lot more than we have done in the last three or four years. We've not had a look-in with Cristiano here."
The last remark was said with a smile, but repeated by Giggs in several different interviews after the game, suggesting perhaps there is genuine relief that one player is no longer hogging the ball. United demonstrated some of the Ronaldo-free benefits as they systematically dismantled Tottenham. A goal behind after a minute; playing a third of the match with 10 men – no problem.
Scholes was superb in midfield until his red card on the hour for two bad fouls in the space of nine minutes. Giggs made brilliance and efficiency work hand-in-hand, while Rooney was simply devastating. Anderson was handed a rare start and responded with United's second goal, a smart finish that punished poor defending at a corner.
The Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp, singled out Darren Fletcher for a near-perfect display on the right of United's midfield four. The Scot hit the pass of the match with his precise daisy-cutter that set up Rooney to score United's third. "Fletcher has made himself into a top player, wherever he plays. He's played wide right here and done a great job. Look at his work rate, he never stops," Redknapp purred. Hardly the "anti-football" player that Arsène Wenger had complained about.
But Redknapp mostly admired United's team ethic. "They always have options when they get the ball, there's always movement," Redknapp said. "It's fantastic. People had started to write them off and say that Chelsea are going to win the championship. But United are going to be bang in there. See Rooney. He's taken it on. He was a big star until Ronaldo came along and took him over, really. I think all the lads will step up to the plate and they will be strong again."
When Scholes was sent off, United did not panic. Michael Carrick came on to shore up the midfield, Spurs tried too hard to make their numerical advantage count, and Rooney finished them off.
Tottenham, who sorely missed the injured Luka Modric, had a flying start thanks to Defoe's scissors kick after an unconvincing header from Nemanja Vidic. They had their moments, not least when Jermaine Jenas forced Ben Foster into a fine save and from the resulting corner Crouch hit the bar.
But afterwards Crouch admitted the scoreline reflected the gulf between the sides. "We know ee're close to the top teams but they've been the top four for a number of years. We're getting close but I wouldn't say we're quite there yet" he said.
United's collective display was just too good. Now for a trip to Besiktas in the Champions League tomorrow, before Sunday and the most eagerly awaited Manchester derby in years.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Cudicini; Corluka (Hutton, 69),
King, Bassong, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Palacios (Jenas, h-t), Huddlestone, Keane (Kranjcar, 72); Crouch, Defoe. Substitutes not used: Gomes (gk), Bentley, Pavlyuchenko, Naughton.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Anderson (Nani, 82), Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov (Carrick, 62). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Owen, F Da Silva, Evans,
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Tottenham Palacios, King, Jenas; Manchester United Vidic, Scholes.
Sent off: Scholes (59).
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 35,785.Reuse content