Slick Spurs the latest to suggest that United are now one-man team

Manchester United 1 Tottenham Hotspur 1

James Lawton
Monday 24 October 2005 00:00

Rooney had one moment of improbable brilliance, a pass off the outside of the back of his heel which had the impact of a knife slashing through silk, but without the permanent effect. The admirably composed Spurs defence, in which Ledley King and his young assistant Michael Dawson grew both larger and more flexible by the minute, simply re-formed.

Rooney produced one more amazing feat, running down Aaron Lennon before taking the ball off his feet, rather like a juggernaut turning into the slow lane while nudging aside a bubble car. When Rooney does such things the body language of Old Trafford, and not least Sir Alex Ferguson's, bursts back into life. But increasingly it is more of a tremor than a surge.

The truth has been accumulating down the months and here it was plain as a weary old bullfrog in a stagnant pool. Rooney can freshen and inspire United only to a certain extent; he cannot indefinitely confuse the issue.

At Fulham recently he pulled it off so spectacularly the old Craven Cottage hero, World Cup-winning George Cohen, was still raving about his performance a week later. But he would not have been raving this day; he would have been acknowledging that one individual, however gifted, can only do so much.

Here the sum of Rooney's contribution, which dismayingly included a stream of lost possession, in the end added up to not much more than a downpayment on a disaster fund.

Reports that owner Malcolm Glazer is willing to crank up Ferguson's spending power to a significant degree - which in the shadow of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea empire must remain a relative term - can only be reinforced by the clearest evidence of the onset of that disaster: institutionalised mediocrity.

That was the gnawing reality of the slippage of a clear edge over an impressively strengthened, but scarcely devastating, Spurs in the first half. At no stage of the game were United either terribly bad - or terribly good. They simply subsided like an irresolute soufflé.

Cristiano Ronaldo, stewing in his own difficulties in the fast lane, came on to replace a stiffly predictable Darren Fletcher, and the much touted little Giuseppe Rossi had 10 minutes of eager but indecisive running at the cover coolly marshalled by King and Dawson. In midfield Alan Smith started with considerable energy but his influence faded in the face of the still fierce intensity of Edgar Davids, as did that of captain Paul Scholes. Whatever United had it was never quite enough. Ruud van Nistelrooy, the owner of a flurry of early goals, was visible but now he bustles rather than dismantles.

It is another lost dimension.

What does Fergie do? How does he rekindle a belief so relentlessly undermined since the first shock of Chelsea's impact? When a man has done so much, made wave upon wave of success to the point of infallibility, the sweep of this question is plainly haunting. What can he do? That is perhaps the more relevant question.

Soon enough, you have to say, Ferguson has to abandon the idea that either Alan Smith or Darren Fletcher can begin to compensate for the ebbing of Roy Keane. For the moment, if he cannot have a Michael Essien, he needs someone more like Davids, a man driven like Keane by the belief that every second of a match is a test as much of his will as his ability. Smith may have a lot of that commitment, but he does not have the strength of mind, the evenly spread tenacity and vision of a true midfielder. Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba fell short; so too, you have to believe, will Smith and Fletcher.

Martin Jol was less than jubilant, and you could understand why. The Dutchman's team may be in the formative stages of their development but their growing composure in the second half should have produced more impact than Jermaine Jenas's imperiously struck free-kick, which equalised United's early strike after Paul Robinson had uncharacteristically dropped the ball at Mikaël Silvestre's feet. Jol, while respectful of a great team "in transition" agreed that he came here with more than the hope of mere parity. If Blackburn won here recently, why not Spurs, for whom good defence is augmented by the midfield craft of Davids and Michael Carrick, the late-budding confidence of Jenas and the bite of Jermain Defoe?

Jol was bitterly upset by referee Uriah Rennie's booking of Davids. He said that the caution followed a bout of sustained leniency, especially in the matter of Smith's rough attempts to subdue the old hand.

For Ferguson, without Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Gabriel Heinze and the still valuable influence of Keane, the temporary absence of one important player must have seemed a relatively minor matter.

What he is missing is something that even Rooney was for once unable to supply. It is that sublime belief that you are bound to win - an asset beyond anyone's price. That at least was the fear on the day when Rooney said goodbye to the least complicated years of his life.

Goals: Silvestre (7) 1-0; Jenas (72) 1-1.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Bardsley (Rossi, 81), Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Fletcher (Ronaldo, 75), Smith, Scholes, Park; Rooney; van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Miller, Pique.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Stalteri, Dawson, King, Lee; Lennon (Keane, 75), Jenas, Carrick, Davids; Defoe (Mendes, 84), Mido. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Naybet, Kelly.

Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester United Rooney, Bardsley; Tottenham Hotspur Davids, Jenas, Stalteri.

Man of the match: Davids.

Attendance: 67,856.

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