When asked to name his favourite English stadium other than Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson often answers that it is White Hart Lane. He politely praises the tradition and the atmosphere of the place but everyone knows what he really means: just about every time United have gone to Tottenham during the Ferguson years they have come away with a result.
Not since May 2001 have Spurs beaten United in the Premier League and even now, when they have their best team in about 30 years and players Ferguson would love to have in his side, the tale of these two clubs seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are chances, controversy, near-misses and then, as sure as there is rain in Manchester, United win the game. That they win important matches when they are supposedly playing poorly is a truth accepted by the English football nation as one of United's great enduring strengths. But when you stop to examine the truth of that old assumption, it does not quite stand up to scrutiny. Playing poorly? Certainly Spurs looked better for much of the game but it would be a stretch to describe United as poor.
There was nothing poor about Ashley Young's two decisive finishes in the second half that made all the difference after Wayne Rooney scored the first just before half-time. The England winger had struggled to get into the game until he scored his first goal on the hour and then his second, nine minutes later, was a breathtaking strike. It was another example of a United player finding that moment of skill which makes the difference in a game.
It keeps United within two points of the leaders, Manchester City, and takes them one step closer to making the match between the two teams on 30 April the closest thing the game has had to a genuine title decider in a long time. No one else, Spurs included, are in with a sniff of the title now.
As for the old United-Spurs hex, a familiar narrative unfolded as soon as United nicked a goal just before half-time with Rooney's header – suddenly it was as if the whole stadium knew what was going to happen. It mattered little that Harry Redknapp's side had been by far the better team and that United had barely had a sight of their opponent's goal.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who both featured yesterday, also played in that last victory for Spurs over United almost 11 years ago. Otherwise, the line-ups from that day read like a history lesson. The goalscorers for Tottenham were the little-known Dutchman Willem Korsten, who scored twice, and Les Ferdinand. Redknapp said yesterday that he "really felt like they were there to be beat". Spurs teams have thought that before and failed.
Even without Gareth Bale, who developed an illness overnight, Spurs looked dangerous. They finished the game with 57 per cent of the possession and 16 attempts at goal compared to six from United. Unfortunately for them, they also finished with two fewer goals. Jermain Defoe's late strike was the first goal Spurs had scored since they went two up at Arsenal eight days ago and, in the meantime, they have conceded eight.
Without the suspended Scott Parker, Spurs simply lost their concentration at a corner before half-time and Rooney stole in to get his head to Young's ball. Rooney had not played for the previous two and a half weeks and yesterday was not one of his better performances but Spurs made it easy for him then. Even Ferguson admitted the Spurs players were "probably sitting in the dressing room [at half-time] wondering how it's 1-0 [to United]". He usually feels disposed to dispense those patronising pats on the head when the United team coach is rolling back out on to the Tottenham High Road with three precious points in the bag but this time it was an accurate appraisal of the first half.
Spurs had by far the best of it, especially Aaron Lennon, who looked like a constant threat to Patrice Evra and also when he cut inside to run at the United defence. Emmanuel Adebayor had a goal disallowed by Martin Atkinson, rightly it should be said, when he flicked the ball in after Louis Saha's shot had struck his hand.
Even in midfield, the relatively inexperienced pairing of Jake Livermore and Sandro held their own against Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Redknapp said that he was forced to play Luka Modric out on the left because his only other alternative, after Bale withdrew, was Niko Kranjcar and he too was also carrying an injury.
After half-time, Spurs came at United once again. David De Gea made a good save after Livermore's shot deflected off Saha. Benoit Assou-Ekotto struck another over the bar. Then Spurs were opened up again. This time by a simple throw-in that Luis Nani took down the byline and crossed for Rooney. Kyle Walker did well to get the ball off his toe but, at the back post, Young executed his volley perfectly to put the ball inside the far corner.
Young's second was a sensational curling shot beyond Brad Friedel from the left channel, although Young was allowed to get too close without being closed down. Defoe, on as a substitute, hit one of his trademark snapshots for Spurs' goal with De Gea partially unsighted. History repeated itself for Spurs who, as usual against United, seem to know what they should do but seemed paralysed by the prospect of doing it.
Spurs: FRIEDEL 5/10; WALKER 4 KABOUL 5; KING 5; ASSOU EKOTTO 6; LENNON 6; LIVERMORE 6; MODRIC 5; SAHA 5; ADEBAYOR 6
Man Utd: DE GEA 7; EVRA 6; EVANS 7; FERDINAND 8; JONES 6; YOUNG 8; CARRICK 7; SCHOLES 6; NANI 6; WELBECK 6; ROONEY 7
Substitutes: Tottenham Defoe (Saha, 80), Kranjcar (Sandro, 80), Rose (Lennon, 84). Manchester United Giggs (Scholes, 61), Park Ji-sung (Nani, 79).
Booked: Tottenham Sandro. Man United Jones, Evans.
Man of the match Ferdinand. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Tottenham 56% Man United 44%.
Attempts on target: Tottenham 9 Man United 5.
Referee M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).