Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 Manchester United
Neither one of these coaches, both feeling the pressure and expectation of fans and ownership for instantaneous success, did themselves much of a favor in this early Sunday match at White Hart Lane. Spurs have spared no expense in finally putting together a full squad of well-fed physically robust technicians. Yet, the surgical manner in which Manchester City humiliated them a week before ought to have made them ripe for Manchester United, especially after the Red Devils had gelled so well in midweek against Bayer Leverküsen. Both sides were tactically predictable and therefore we were left more than a tad bereft with the logical gift of a draw. A conservative hierarchy at Old Trafford surely won’t be too enamored of the way David Moyes club tossed off yet another victory. letting it trickle out between his fingers; although there’ll surely be far less patience at a more populist-driven Spurs club where André Villas-Boas got a obscene, irate earful from the gathered faithful when he substituted Aaron Lennon with Andros Townsend. Both managers protest that they get the big stuff right, but, as we all know, it’s the trifling minutae that’ll kill you.
It was a decent match and there were some real heart-pounding show stopping moments when both sides doubtless felt they did enough to win the game. Spurs led twice, their second goal an exquisite masterpiece off the laces of the gritty Brazilian Sandro’s right boot. Twice United fell behind, but they never showed even the slightest sign of flat-lining as they have late in games so often this season. Completely dependent on the counterattack, United were as thumb-suckingly predictable as they’ve ever been, but with Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney both so razor-sharp, Spurs’ defense just didn’t own the skill or imagination to cope. In Roberto Soldado and Danny Welbeck both clubs have two strikers who repeatedly flatter to deceive. With both missing a brace of gilt-edged chances, it seemed like the callous fat lady who sings about fifth place in the Premier League was singing her giant lungs out, beckoning toward May.
With Andros Townsend performing so creditably for both Tottenham and England, many pundits genuinely wondered why Aaron Lennon was picked by Villas-Boas in the first place. Actually, it’s really obvious. Lennon owns Patrice Evra and has done for years. Now that Evra’s legs have gone, it is unfathomable why he would pick him over a Fabio Da Silva who is foaming at the mouth to play. There’s no doubt that Lennon is an abysmal crosser of the ball and rarely scores, but it was clear that, in AVB’s mind, he would draw lots of fouls. And clearly he did draw lots of fouls and free kicks. And by St. George and the hair of AVB’s chiny-chin-chin, there were lots of free-kicks awarded to Spurs. Why none of them scored is impossible to know. At any rate, Moyes and his brains’ trust of Phil Neville and Steve Round aren’t telling. The writing seemed to be on the wall as Evra was quickly the recipient of a warning from the referee Mike Riley and soon the recipient of a yellow card. Was this a good gamble on either manager’s part? Lucky is what they both were. To this concerned fan, however, a lack of imagination in Moyes’ case gives cause for sincere concern about the long run.
At any rate, eighteen minutes in, Jones(who otherwise played a blinder!) let the ball drop over his head on the edge of the area before Jonny Evans sent Paulinho tumbling and the referee, Mike Riley, blew for yet another Tottenham free kick. Kyle Walker stepped up, opening the scoring with a low daisy-cutter free-kick as the four players in the defensive wall jumped straight over the ball. The comedy defending quartet–Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck ––clearly ill-prepared by their supposedly stat-mad coaching staff– were expecting Walker to go for the top corner, even though his opta stats say he never has. Walker’s wicked little low bullet flew unopposed past a frozen David De Gea and United’s red-faces were there for all to see. Yet another stupid one conceded!
Quite off balance for a while, United gave up a series of free-kicks and corners, but Evans and Vidic commanded the box well and Jones was always in the slot to mop up. It was Walker, who had been playing brilliantly, whose error allowed the equalizer. After a complacent Jan Vertonghen allowed Phil Jones on a diagonal run onto the right wing from midfield, Walker got distracted by a reversing Michael Dawson. Fooled by Jones’ searching cross reaching him at the back post, he fumbled his footwork, inadvertently clipping the ball into the path of a marauding Rooney, who had ample time to sprint into the six yard box at a low crouch and slam home the equalizer past a stranded Hugo Lloris in the 30th minute.
Two silly mistakes. Two goals!
The second half was often good, edge-of-your-seat-stuff. With Soldado simply trying too hard and the effective Moussa Demembel seemingly unwilling to share the ball, Spurs may have been enjoying the lion’s-share of the ball, but they never truly looked up for scoring while, at the same time, United came close a number of times, the brilliant interplay of Kagawa and Rooney keeping Spurs’ back line constantly at full stretch. It was only after Danny Welbeck got tangled up in his own footwork and failed to meet a defense-splitting Kagawa pass that Spurs took a shock lead in the 54th minute as Sandro–a rare technical magician on those few moments he chooses to be–advanced through the middle, cut inside a wincing Tom Cleverley and let loose a beautiful curving 25 yard howitzer that gave De Gea no chance whatsoever.
Spurs could not hold their lead for long, however. United’s attack began in their own own half, as Vidic and Walker clashed. The Serb veteran simply shrugged off Walker and broke upfield before slipping the ball to Rooney. The Scouse striker made a a fine jinky run and found Welbeck just in front of a charging Lloris. Lloris seemed to have enough time to avoid touching Welbeck as he slid along the turf, but instead of tailing off his lowered palm touched both the striker’s front foot and his trailing back leg. The referee, Mike Dean, had no doubt about pointing to the spot and Rooney waited for Lloris to dive before blasting the equalizer straight down the middle into an empty net.
Wayne Rooney was clearly the man of the match and, having scored five goals in his last five games, may be playing the best total football of his career. With his two goals against Tottenham, Rooney (164) moves outright fifth in the overall Premier League leading scorers list, overtaking Robbie Fowler (163). He still has to catch up with Frank Lampard (168), Thierry Henry (175), Andy Cole (189), and Alan Shearer (269), but, barring some dreadful injury, it does look like he shall ultimately overtake them all. United’s unbeaten run in all competitions now stands at 12 games. For a team with an abysmal, ineffective midfield it is sort of miraculous. Despite being nine points behind the leaders Arsenal at the start of December the possibility of still ending up in the top four looms large if Moyes and company can pull off the right January moves.