United's frailties exposed by Spurs

FOOTBALL: Armstrong's double blow for Ferguson while Liverpool reiterate championship aspirations with remarkable fightback
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Tottenham Hotspur 4 Manchester United 1

They must have good New Year's Eve parties at Manchester United. Too good. Last night, four years to the New Year's Day when they were beaten 4-1 by Queen's Park Rangers, they again conceded four goals.

It was their biggest domestic defeat since that game and it means Newcastle will again go seven points clear, with a game in hand, if they beat Arsenal at St James' Park tonight.

"We created chances, scored great goals, fought for everything. We were magnificent," said Gerry Francis, the Tottenham manager. Not that this was a new experience for him, he was manager of Queen's Park Rangers four years ago.

Rangers' star that day was Dennis Bailey, who scored a hat-trick. It was his 90 minutes of fame - he now plays for Gillingham. Maybe, though, his ghost still haunts United, yesterday he was playing at Leyton Orient. On a night of ethereal fog, perhaps his spirit drifted across Hackney Marshes to Tottenham.

Last night's heroes look to have a brighter future. Chris Armstrong's two goals, and Teddy Sheringham's one, brought their burgeoning partnership to 27 goals this season. Sol Campbell was the other scorer and even Andy Cole's fourth goal in as many matches was of little consolation to United.

United had arrived in good heart, boosted by successive home wins and an unbeaten record against Spurs stretching back 10 games. But, even before kick-off, their spirits were lowered by two pieces of ill-fortune.

First Paul Scholes was taken ill then, in the warm-up, Peter Schmeichel pulled a calf muscle. Kevin Pilkington was brought into the 14 but Schmeichel started the game. With three of their back-four already out injured, the last thing Alex Ferguson wanted was to lose his goalkeeper. It was a calculated gamble, but it was a mistake.

Initially it seemed United's patched-up defence would survive, albeit with luck as both Neville brothers blocked attacks by Ronny Rosenthal. Schmeichel, though, was clearly limping and, in the stands, Alex Ferguson said he was already thinking that he should not have started.

After five minutes the Dane was motionless as Sheringham headed a corner against the outside of the post. Five minutes later he was statuesque as Armstrong thudded a 20-yard shot against the joint of bar and post.

It was not all Tottenham. They had as many men out as United and theirs were mainly midfielders. Thus, with Cantona again playing deep, United took early control of this area. Ian Walker made a series of saves, denying David Beckham, Cole and Cantona three times.

But Tottenham are made of sterner stuff under Francis and they did not buckle. Instead they went ahead after 34 minutes. Dean Austin crossed low from the right and Sheringham, inadvertently played onside by Beckham, had time to stumble over the ball before stabbing it past a flat-footed Schmeichel.

The celebrations lasted barely a minute. Almost from the kick-off Nicky Butt drove into the Spurs half before releasing Philip Neville on the left. He pulled the ball back and Cole slid in to score. Spurs responded in style, Austin overlapped on the right, Parker, under pressure from Sheringham, headed it towards the penalty-spot and Campbell shot in.

At the interval United replaced Schmeichel with Pilkington. Almost his first act was to pick the ball out of the net as Armstrong put Spurs further ahead: he scored with a diving header after Darren Caskey's deep cross had been headed back by Rosenthal.

United rallied and both Rosenthal and Walker made goal-line clearances in a frantic goalmouth melee. Then Cole hooked a shot just past the post, but the feeling that it was not to be United's night was confirmed when Armstrong scored again, heading powerfully and accurately past Pilkington from Sheringham's clever chip.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Austin, Calderwood, Nethercott, Edinburgh; Rosenthal, Campbell, Caskey, Dumitrescu (McMahon, 80); Sheringham, Armstrong. Substitutes not used: Day (gk), Slade.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel (Pilkington, h-t); Parker, Prunier, G Neville, P Neville (McClair, 70); Beckham, Keane (Sharpe, 70), Cantona, Butt, Giggs; Cole.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

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