Rarely has there been a better illustration of a game of two halves as Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale took advantage of a listless home display to put Tottenham into a 2-0 lead at the break. Aided by the introduction of Wayne Rooney, United were reborn in the second period and scored through Nani and Shinji Kagawa as well as hitting the woodwork twice. But a goal in between United’s strikes by Clint Dempsey proved decisive.
Manchester United came into the match missing the key presence of Nemanja Vidic through injury and their weakened defense was exposed inside three minutes.
Playing out of position at left-back, Vertonghen was allowed to burst forward past Nani with ease on the left and upon reaching the area Rio Ferdinand failed to put in a challenge worthy of the name before the error-strewn phase was completed as the Belgian’s shot deflected off the hand of the fallen Jonny Evans and inside Anders Lindegaard’s near post.
United tried to find an immediate response and almost did so with Robin van Persie about to pull the trigger in the box before William Gallas came storming in with a fine tackle that got the ball and then man to leave the Dutchman temporarily prone on the ground.
At the other end, Tottenhanm continued to look dangerous. Vertonghen might have added a second had he not headed a chance comfortably over the bar when free in the area from a free-kick.
But Tottenham only had to wait until the 32nd minute before exposing the lack of dynamism in United’s side once again to make it 2-0. On the break away, Bale picked up the ball on half way and simply breezed through to the edge of the area, leaving Ferdinand in his wake as he did so, before firing low with his weaker right foot back across Lindegaard and into the net.
Although lacking energy and ideas, United had the first of several penalty appeals at the end of the first half as Vertonghen had a hold of Nani’s shirt in the area and the Portuguese winger went to the ground. It would have been soft and Nani made the most of it, but by the letter of the law United probably had reason to feel aggrieved.
Being badly outplayed, it was the half-time introduction of Rooney and surely a half-time hair dryer from Sir Alex Ferguson that led to a much improved second period for United.
Rooney made an almost immediate impact as, found by Van Persie in space down the right, the England international provided an inch-perfect low cross for Nani, who diverted the ball past Brad Friedel. To the astonishment of those watching, it was merely the first goal of an incredible three minute spell.
Storming up the other end United and Ferdinand were exposed once more as Defoe easily beat his one-time England colleague on the left before playing it through to a wide open Bale. The Welshman’s shot was parried by Lindegaard, but only as far as Dempsey who was alert to side-foot home.
Wasting no time, United quickly reduced their arrears once more. Kagawa escaped the attentions of the Tottenham defense and, found by Van Persie, controlled the ball delightfully before producing the coolest of finishes into the bottom corner.
The goals may have ended, but there was little easing up in the excitement as United poured forward in search of an equalizer. Rooney was looking fitter than he had in some time and almost scored a wonderful free-kick from 25 yards but for the intervention of the post.
He was a danger from open play too. Found by Rafael in the box, Rooney turned sharply and fired just wide of the target. An even better chance soon fell the way of Van Persie after a clever through ball by Carrick, but the former Arsenal man shot well wide of the far post as he bore down on goal down the left of the box.
United continued to pressurize in the frenetic final stages, but despite a fine effort form Scholes and a Carrick header against the cross bar, Tottehnam did well to survive the onslaught.
United may feel their second-half performance warranted at least a point, but they can only look at themselves and continued glaring deficiencies in midfield and, with a host of injuries, at the back.