This is the stuff of which champions are made, and the controversy on which football thrives. Two goals down at half-time to a team who had not beaten them here for almost 20 years, Manchester United responded with a storming 45 minutes, scoring five times to take another huge step towards the Premier League title. Once more they lead Liverpool by three points, with a game in hand.
If there is any qualification to be made – and Tottenham's manager Harry Redknapp predictably did make it, at length and with some feeling – it was that the goal that turned the tide for United, bringing them back to 2-1 and instilling new belief, was a bitterly disputed penalty.
Heurelho Gomes plunged at Michael Carrick's feet, the ball veered away and the referee Howard Webb dismayed the visitors by indicating a foul. Cristiano Ronaldo calmly struck it home and in the next 14 minutes he added another goal, the outstanding Wayne Rooney scored two and United were home and dry. Liverpool must have been sick.
Until half-time, United had not even played well. Sir Alex Ferguson blamed their lack of tempo and his crucial response was to send on Carlos Tevez who, on this performance, he can hardly afford to lose to any of the suitors keen to capitalise on the chunky little Argentine's current feelings of dislocation.
Tevez has suffered more than anyone from the fact that it is impossible for teams of United's stature to act upon the old cliché of taking one game at a time. With the home leg of the Champions' League semi-final against Arsenal on Wednesday in mind, Ferguson made another five changes from the side that eased past Portsmouth in midweek, leaving Tevez and Paul Scholes in the padded dug-out seats and denying an 800th appearance to Ryan Giggs, who may conceivably win the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year award this evening.
The tricky part of such calculations is finding the right balance between freshening up the team and maintaining some sort of tactical coherence. Tottenham, with only one match per week to worry about since tamely losing in the FA Cup here and effectively opting out of the Uefa Cup, took advantage, shaking Old Trafford to its foundations and raising hope on Merseyside with two goals in three minutes on either side of the half-hour.
They had made only one earlier chance, although that should have been sufficient warning, in that United were badly caught out by a cross beyond the far post. The lesson was not heeded. In the 29th minute Aaron Lennon fed Vedran Corluka for a chip that Ferdinand did not clear; his weak header bounced off Nemanja Vidic and fell perfectly for Bent to bang in a 17th of the season. Three minutes later Lennon did the crossing and as Bent challenged Ferdinand the ball carried beyond both of them to an unmarked Luka Modric for a straightforward finish. Rafael could not escape responsibility for that goal either. A disjointed United had threatened only from free-kicks by Ronaldo, one player United cannot risk leaving out of key games. One of them required two grabs by Gomes, the next brought strident appeals for handball and a third rebounded to him for a dipping volley that the goalkeeper did brilliantly to turn over the bar.
Ferguson registered his displeasure with the unexpected turn of events by sending on Tevez as the striker furthest forward, Dimitar Berbatov playing off him and Rooney moving out to the left, where his effectiveness is often muted. Not this time. He was hugely influential as United became a side transformed by Tevez's introduction and what we can assume was a lively little speech from the manager. Early in the half Rooney and then Ronaldo were both denied, before Gomes became a key figure.
Carrick, moving smoothly on to Rooney's pass, touched the ball before the goalkeeper did, and despite the mass protests from Tottenham's players and vast fleet of coaches, Ronaldo was as unmoved as the referee, sending his penalty straight and true.
Spurs were on the back foot and now they tottered over under the weight of three more goals in four minutes. First, another swift combination between Berbatov, Rooney and Tevez finished with the latter feeding Rooney for an equaliser that Gomes should have prevented at his near post. Barely 60 seconds later the ground was rocking as Rooney chipped beyond Ledley King and Ronaldo headed in, before repaying the compliment for his team-mate. There was even time for Berbatov to bundle in the fifth goal of United's extraordinary evening.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Rooney
Match rating: 8/10
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