Tottenham have never won a Premier League match at Old Trafford and are unlikely to end that barren run if they give away goals as daft as United's second this evening. With six minutes of normal time remaining, and Spurs in urgent pursuit of an equaliser, Heurelho Gomes flaunted the golden rule about playing to the whistle, threw the ball to the floor in expectation of a free-kick, and was horribly embarrassed when Nani emerged from behind him and, after hesitating for what seemed like an eternity to see if a decision was going to be given, knocked it past the goalkeeper and into the net.
Harry Redknapp, out of managerial loyalty, tried to defend the culprit, claiming Nani should have been booked for handball and Spurs awarded a free-kick. He called the outcome "scandalous", but Sir Alex Ferguson was spot on in his analysis of the situation. "We appealed for a penalty, didn't get it and the ball hit Nani's hand," he said. "But the referee didn't blow his whistle and the linesman didn't flag until after the goal was scored, so the ball was still in play. Nani looked at the referee, saw nothing had been given so what could he do? He put the ball in the net. Gomes is an experienced goalkeeper and should know better. He made a mess of it. He thought it was a free-kick and made an error. It was bizarre."
Spurs were losing 1-0 at the time, destined for defeat, and of greater concern to Redknapp and Spurs than Nani's opportunism ought to be the hamstring injury that forced the inspirational Rafael van der Vaart to go off, and will almost certainly rule him out of Tuesday night's Champions League tie at home to Internazionale. "He's a big doubt", the manager admitted. The Dutchman would be a major, arguably decisive loss at a time when Tottenham's strikers are misfiring badly. After Gareth Bale, who has six goals in all competitions and Van der Vaart, with five, nobody else has managed as many as Roman Pavlyuchenko's two. Robbie Keane, recalled for only his second start in the league, was so ineffective that he was substituted in favour of Peter Crouch, who has not scored since last season.
In the circumstances, Nemanja Vidic's powerful header, bulleted home in the 31st minute from a Nani free-kick, was always likely to be enough for a resurgent United team who are gathering strength and are unbeaten since last April. With the prodigal, aka Wayne Rooney, looking on from the stand and the perennial casualty they call Michael Owen also absent, there was another chance for the new kid on this Mancunian block, Javier Hernández, to add to his burgeoning reputation. Already, after seven appearances, the Mexican is being compared with Owen at his peak. As Ferguson points out, these are early days, and we are in an era when stars are made, and brought down to earth again, quicker than you can say Francis Jeffers, but at 22 the striker they call Little Pea has the look of a real find, and both William Gallas and Younes Kaboul were booked for illicit attempts to keep him at bay.
It is two years, almost to the day, since Redknapp took charge of an ailing Tottenham, who were bottom of the table with two points from eight games, and some billed this as the acid test for the remarkable progress Spurs have made since. The suggestion was lazy journalism. It is not United but Chelsea, who also won yet again, who provide the ultimate examination these days. Ferguson admitted as much, saying: "For 18 years it used to be said that to win the league you had to finish in front of Manchester United. Now the harsh reality is that if we are going to win the championship we must finish ahead of Chelsea. We are playing catch-up already." That said, he was pleased with his team's ongoing improvement, adding: "We are on a run that suggests we have recovered our old tenacity and composure. We have come through well in three different competitions, so it's been a morale-boosting run that I hope will be the launch pad for demonstrating that there is nothing materially wrong."
Talking of which, he turned his attention to an injured observer who disappeared from view at half-time, possibly in search of more chicken nuggets. "The players tend to be cocooned in their own little football world," Ferguson said. "It's only when something like the Wayne Rooney saga explodes that they can judge the enormity of this club."
Spurs have not won at their theatre of nightmares since Gary Lineker's day, back in 1989, but this was a good, competitive contest for the most part – something which couldn't always be said in the recent past. Both teams were tantalisingly close to taking the lead in the first eight minutes, Park Ji-sung and Van der Vaart shivering uprights from distance with the respective goalkeepers beaten.
As might have been expected, United created most of the goal attempts, Park, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher going on to test Gomes before Vidic gave them the lead. Kaboul was booked for flooring Hernández and from the consequent free-kick, taken by Nani out on the right, the burly centre-half climbed above Benoît Assou-Ekotto to score with a header bulleted past Gomes's right hand.
Luka Modric threatened to restore equality before half-time with a blistering shot from the 18-yard line that Van der Sar was happy to beat away with a flying save.
By way of response, Dimitar Berbatov tested Gomes from long and short range, and United waxed stronger in the second half when they made a better job of closing down Van der Vaart, who limped out of the fray after 78 minutes.
Controversial or not, the second goal was of arithmetical consequence only. Redknapp as good as admitted as much when he said: "We were losing 1-0 and the chances are we'd have been beaten 1-0. I don't blame Mark Clattenburg for the defeat, I think he's a good referee."
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT NIK STOREY, Observer reader It was an assured display and we are warming up nicely. The return of Rio was great and he forms a good defensive partnership with Vidic. Everyone worried about Bale before but it was evident that Rafael could cope with him. Van der Vaart was lively for Spurs but Carrick was man of the match. He pressed the space well and made sure that Van der Vaart's options were limited. Ji-sung Park has had some stick but he was fantastic down the left. Funny second goal. Not a fan of referee Clattenburg but he got it right. He has not blow the whistle. It is a shame the incident will overshadow everything.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 6; Rafael 8 (Brown 64 7),Ferdinand 7, Vidic 8, Evra 6; Nani 7, Fletcher 7, Carrick 8, Park 8; Berbatov 6 (Scholes 64 6), Hernández 6 (Obertan 87 n/a)
MICHAEL LACQUIERE, AllActionNoPlot.com I don't like to criticise the referee, but I presume he didn't see the handball, or he did and he played the advantage. Either way it seems a bad call – the goal would never have been given at the other end, not at Old Trafford. It's a shame it ended in controversy because it will detract from our performance, which was decent. We matched United and played with no fear – a draw would've been a fair result. Van der Vaart and Modric created a lot of space but we never made any clear-cut chances. I felt sorry for Keane, he shouted and pointed a lot, but he is clearly not the type of striker who can lead a 4-5-1 formation.
The fan's player ratings Gomes 6; Hutton 5, Gallas 6, Kaboul 6, Assou-Ekotto 5; Lennon 5, Jenas 5 (Palacios 66 6), Modric 7, Bale 6, Van der Vaart 7 (Crouch 77 n/a); Keane 5 (Pavlyuchenko 62 5)
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