Perhaps the best thing that can be said for André Villas-Boas amid all the scrutiny of Tottenham's manager is that there was never the sense that his team were playing under strain. True, there was that awkward moment when he substituted Aaron Lennon and White Hart Lane grumpily showed its disapproval but there were other moments when the crowd belted out the manager's name. His team matched Manchester United in a pulsating game and probably had enough chances to beat them for the first time at this ground since 2001.
They led twice and the second of them was an absolute peach off the laces of Sandro's right boot. David Moyes's team, operating on the counterattack, needed all their powers of durability. They created plenty of chances of their own and Wayne Rooney, with another two goals, led their attack with great presence and authority. Yet the draw still felt unsatisfactory when it means a nine-point gap to Arsenal at the top of the league.
Spurs, another point back, have different priorities and Villas-Boas, in a spiky series of post-match interviews, felt sufficiently emboldened to argue that he deserved more "respect" on the back of a week's worth of debate about his position. The Spurs manager clearly feels aggrieved that his job is in danger and this was his chance, perhaps, to let off a bit of that pent-up frustration, including a couple of icy little putdowns for Sir Alan Sugar. All very entertaining, though he really should be big enough to ignore the former Spurs chairman rather than getting involved in a mud-slinging contest.
His team had played well for the most part and, though not flawless, he was entitled to reflect on a vastly improved performance after the harrowing defeat at Manchester City the previous weekend. The Spurs manager could have been forgiven for feeling a measure of exasperation that they had not gone even further. At 1-0, with Lennon pinning back Patrice Evra and the volume cranked up, Roberto Soldado missed a glorious chance from Paulinho's pass to double the lead. Rooney's first goal arrived four minutes later, with United otherwise hanging on, and the defending in the build-up was fairly wretched.
Kyle Walker, the player raising an apologetic arm, had opened the scoring in the 18th minute when the four players in the visitors' defensive wall jumped straight over his free-kick. The guilty quartet – Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Rooney – had clearly expected Walker to go for the top corner. Walker struck an old-fashioned daisy-cutter instead. It was a poor goal to concede and it took United some time to shake their heads clear.
Unfortunately for Walker, the mistake that set up Rooney just after the half-hour was a lot worse than Villas-Boas made out when the manager talked about his player's "unlucky touch". In mitigation, perhaps the right-back was distracted by the close proximity of Michael Dawson. All the same, there was something pretty ghastly about the way he inadvertently cushioned Jones's right-wing cross straight into the path of one of the league's in-form strikers. Rooney, from six yards, was never going to pass up such a gift.
Walker also played an unwitting contribution before Hugo Lloris came off his goalline to bring down Welbeck for the penalty that offered Rooney the chance to put away his second equaliser. The attack had begun in United's own half, with Nemanja Vidic and Walker going for a 50-50 and the Serb making it absolutely clear he simply does not lose those kind of battles. United broke upfield and Welbeck reached Rooney's through ball just in front of Lloris. The referee, Mike Dean, decided the goalkeeper had made contact with the striker's trailing leg and Rooney aimed his penalty, low and hard, straight down the middle.
Villas-Boas complained afterwards that Dean had a poor vantage point but it was also true that Lloris should not have rushed from his goalline. Welbeck's body movement was not taking him in on goal and a goalkeeper in those positions is always vulnerable if he arrives a fraction late. Welbeck, anticipating the contact, had left his foot in position, as tends to be the way these days.
After that, the game could have gone either way. United are never at their strongest when Jones and Tom Cleverley are in the centre of midfield but Rooney was always a menace for the Spurs defence. Antonio Valencia had the beating of Jan Vertonghen, though Shinji Kagawa has a habit sometimes of fading out of these fast, frenetic matches. With Rooney in this form, there is always reason for confidence, even with Robin van Persie injured, but Moyes admitted being concerned by their inability to get nearer to Arsenal, albeit pointing out there was still plenty of time to close the gap.
Spurs, to their credit, did not allow nervousness to creep in after Rooney's penalty. They will know, however, they could have protected their lead with more authority. Two minutes earlier, Sandro had advanced through the middle, veering right to left, before cutting back inside Cleverley and letting fly. The connection was perfect and the ball rocketed into that satisfactory part of the goal where post meets crossbar. Sandro may never strike a shot so well again but Spurs could not hold out.
Man of the match Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)