Van Nistelrooy stalls the Santini revival

Tottenham Hotspur 0 - Manchester United 1
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The Independent Football

How long until that old White Hart Lane favourite, "We want our Tottenham back" pierces the north London air once more? The Tottenham, that is, who swashbuckle their way to a 3-0 lead over Manchester teams and still lose (see Hoddle G and Pleat D).

The chant tends to be popular in eras when a manager with no previous Spurs connection is cutting down on the swashbuckling and concentrating instead on achieving results, by whatever means are deemed necessary. Jacques Santini, presumably aware of the club's traditions but unburdened by them yet, has now presided over seven League games, in which there have been a total of seven goals, only four of them to his team.

He is being given the benefit of the doubt because it is a new, younger side, who suggested in finally cutting loose to win a Carling Cup tie 6-0 at Oldham last Wednesday that they can win in style against certain opposition. Last night Santini deflected attention away from shortcomings in attack by questioning why the experienced Steve Bennett was taken off refereeing the game to act as fourth official, and was replaced by Pete Walton, who is in his first season on the Premiership list. The first suggestion offered was that a strong fourth official was required, which appeared to be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

"I don't understand why they change the referee three or four days before the match," Santini said. "I don't know this referee and I wasn't happy with a lot of his decisions. Also, when I was standing with my assistant at half-time we saw the referee in the Manchester United dressing-room, smiling with their staff and players."

If the match-winning penalty, for shirt-pulling, might not have been given by some officials, neutrals will surely welcome defenders being punished for the infuriating holding and pulling that is so prevalent in penalty areas these days. The upshot was that Tottenham's nascent revival was snuffed out by United's, a first defeat of the season being inflicted by Ruud van Nistelrooy's spot-kick as the visitors followed up victory over Liverpool six days earlier with another deserved success. The newly parsimonious Spurs defence was regularly troubled, despite Ledley King's continuing excellence, by some vintage play down the wings, especially from the outstanding Cristiano Ronaldo.

The home side, in contrast, were deficient in that area, which is contributing to their worrying lack of goals. So there was, in the end, an air of inevitability about their seventh successive loss to United, whom they have not beaten since May 2001, when the long-forgotten Willem Korsten scored two goals.

Yesterday's solution was supposed to be fielding three attacking players in Jermain Defoe, Frédéric Kanouté and Robbie Keane, with the last-named wide on the left. He did not look comfortable in a midfield role and was probably less upset than most when Kanouté had to come off with a strain after only 29 minutes, Simon Davies deputising.

United had taken the bold option by bringing back Alan Smith to play right up alongside Van Nistelrooy in the absence of Paul Scholes, who was protecting a groin injury. They were the more threatening side even before Ronaldo drifted past several challenges in a run parallel to the penalty area to feed the left-back Gabriel Heinze, who crossed to the far post. A sharp-eyed referee's assistant spotted that Erik Edman was holding John O'Shea's shirt, and Van Nistelrooy drove in a powerful penalty-kick.

Tottenham's only opportunities stemmed from poor clearances, normally by Mikaël Silvestre. Twice he gave possession to Pedro Mendes, the first shot flying too high and the second forcing Roy Carroll, hampered by a post, to concede a corner. For the second half, Santini pushed Keane down the middle and saw some benefit almost immediately. From the Dubliner's pass Defoe burst between Rio Ferdinand and Silvestre but shot wide. The crowd wanted a corner and, fuelled by resentment at that and other refereeing decisions - not least the penalty, shown on the big screens at half-time - they increased the level of vocal support as the team raised their game.

Sir Alex Ferguson strode to the edge of the pitch for the first time in some concern. Once United steadied themselves at the back, with Ferdinand solid in the second game of his comeback, Ronaldo was able to begin tormenting Tottenham again. He crossed low for Van Nistelrooy to tap in, only to be given offside - harshly, to the naked eye. Then Ronaldo turned up on the right again, wriggling inside to be denied by Paul Robinson's save at the near post, and Robbie Keane turned defender with a brave block as Silvestre shot from only six yards following a corner.

Spurs needed another lift, so Jamie Jackson was sent on for the South African Mbulelo Mabizela, who had started a League game for the first time this season. The desired effect did not materialise until Carroll was required to save from Keane in the final minute, just after the substitute David Bellion's shot from close range hit Robinson in the chest after yet another incisive cross by Ronaldo.

So a familiar result meant that the top of the Premiership table is developing an equally familiar look, this result completing a hat-trick of 1-0 away wins for the big three clubs.