Tottenham's Premier League title challenge, at first utterly unexpected and then increasingly impressive, is over following 3-1 defeat at White Hart Lane, says Richard Jolly.
Young and Rooney smash and grab earns Man United win at Spurs
Tottenham Hotspur 1 Manchester United 3
LONDON // And then there were two. Tottenham Hotspur's title challenge, at first utterly unexpected and then increasingly impressive, is over. A second successive defeat ensures that the eventual champions will come from Manchester. It is altogether harder to say which the red or blue half will end the season celebrating because, whenever Manchester City triumph, Manchester United respond in kind.
A sixth victory in seven games was both a smash-and-grab raid and an extension to a pattern of dominance. It is 11 years and 26 matches since Tottenham beat United and, even when below their best, Sir Alex Ferguson's side possess a winning habit that has sustained them for two decades. "We certainly carried a bit of luck today," admitted the manager. "The one thing we did do is show the determination to get the result."
It came courtesy of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young, who scored a brace, providing clinical finishes to ensure they became only the second visitors to win a league game at White Hart Lane this season. The others, needless to say, were City.
As four of Spurs' six setbacks this season have come against the two sides above them, it is easy to see where their challenge has foundered. As United had kicked off five points behind City and were away at the third-best team, it is arguably their best result of a campaign that has included an 8-2 demolition of Arsenal.
Then as now, Rooney and Young were pivotal. Since a glorious start to his United career in August and September, the latter has been criticised. Three crucial contributions a reminder that, whatever his performance level, few wingers provide more goals and assists. Meanwhile, it is a measure of the striker's mettle that the majority of his 18 league goals have come against elite opposition: two each against Tottenham and Liverpool, three apiece against Arsenal and Chelsea.
He gave United the lead on the stroke of half time, Rooney evading Kyle Walker and heading in Young's corner. A second set-piece was defended equally poorly. Spurs switched off as United took a quick throw. Nani met it, delivering a low cross that took a touch off both Younes Kaboul and Walker. The deflections threatened to make it awkward for Young, but he swivelled to hook a volley beyond Brad Friedel.
While very different, his second was a similarly stunning finish, Young's whipped, curled finish flying into the top corner. Ferguson preferred to praise the men at the other end who kept Tottenham out until Jermain Defoe's consolation goal, well struck but too late to influence the outcome.
"It was a massive result and a massive performance by our defenders," said the Scot. "It was a great performance by Tottenham in the first half; we maybe got our tactics wrong."
And yet it could have proved very different. Briefly celebrating what he thought was the opening goal, Emmanuel Adebayor - borrowed, of course, from City - actually proved an effective last line of defence for United.
After Aaron Lennon had darted to the byline, David de Gea could only divert his cross into the path of Louis Saha. One striker's shot was goal-bound but hit the other and, while Adebayor then applied a finishing touch, he was deemed to have handled Saha's effort. "I thought it was a bit harsh," said Harry Redknapp.
In addition, De Gea parried shots from Adebayor and Jake Livermore, the latter taking a wicked deflection off Saha.
"A fantastic save," said Ferguson. It would have brought Spurs level. Instead, defeat left them with lesser ambitions.
"I want to finish third," added Redknapp. "I want to finish above Arsenal and Chelsea."
He, like Ferguson, cited fortune's role. "We didn't get any luck," Redknapp said. It began before kick-off. Minus the suspended Scott Parker, the ill Gareth Bale and the injured Rafael van der Vaart, it was an inopportune moment to face United. Given their ruthlessness, however, it can seem there is no good time.