Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Manchester Utd 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur: A Real Case of Counting Your Chickens...

A phenomenal second half comeback saw Manchester United return from the dead. Losing 2-0 at half-time, the Red Devils hammered in five goals against Tottenham Hotspur in the space of 23 minutes to seal a win which tightens their grip on the Premiership.

In truth though it took a Spurs team who played all the football in the first half to suffer stage fright on the big occasion, a few choice words from Sir Alex at half-time, and a comeback written in the pages of Roy of the Rovers to seal the win.

With Liverpool returning to the summit after their 3-1 win over Hull City, United had it all to do against an ever improving Tottenham side. Since taking over in October, Harry Redknapp has all but transformed the club's ambitions this season, and with Spurs once again on the precipice of European qualification, this was an important game for both teams.

However, Spurs took the game to their hosts. Dominating midfield and cutting holes through the United rearguard at will. Aaron Lennon was giving Patrice Evra a real footballing lesson on the right as the little winger added another terrorised defender to his growing list of victims.

In truth, Manchester United took to the pitch with their feet hanging out the windows, never mind being off the pedals. Spurs have always had a soft centre, and you half to go back to the halcyon days of the early '80s to find a midfielder who could actually tackle.

With the United players literally "counting their chickens", Spurs took the game to them. Wilson Palacios has been added to the midfield for the bite and determination that he brings to the table, and partnered by Jermaine Jenas they dominated the centre of the park.

Spurs have caused all kinds of problems for the top four this season, ending Liverpool's unbeaten run, ending Guus Hiddink's unbeaten run, and coming back from the dead against Arsenal at the Emirates in a memorable 4-4 draw.

Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric both employed in the wide positions gave United's midfield and defence all kinds of problems, Lennon's surging runs offset by Modric's intelligence were at the heartbeat of all that was good in Spurs play.

Ex-Spurs player Dimitar Berbatov looked on as a spectator in the first half, Ronaldo's play was non-existent, and Wayne Rooney's best play was all on the wrong side of the pitch as United defended.

It came as no surprise to see Spurs take the lead. Vedran Corlkuka found himself in plenty of space on the right and whipped in a cross between Ferdinand and Vidic. Darren Bent swept into the gap, and after his initial attempt fell kindly for him, he smashed it home.

Looking shell-shocked United tipped off, but again Spurs made all the play. And two minutes later they added a second. Again the ball was crossed from the right, this time from the boot of Lennon.

The ball crossed the United six yard box and found the lurking Luca Modric. He controlled it superbly and United were two down.

Liverpool and Spurs fans up and down the country screamed with joy. The 2-0 lead was unassailable. Spurs were the better team, they were in the ascendancy, United's best players were nowhere to be seen. The game was all over as the referee blew the whistle for half time.

Then Spurs began "counting their chickens..."

The vapid performance of Nani ensured that he came off for Carlos Tevez at half-time. How the Argentinian has not started more games in a red shirt this season is a mystery, especially after last season's heroics.

He is the ultimate pro. Plays where he is told, never gives less than 100 per cent, and has the technique and class to play anywhere. Unlike his teammates Ronaldo, Berbatov, and Nani, he never lets his head drop and if he does move away from Old Trafford this summer, Sir Alex can only blame himself.

With a little juggle, Rooney was switched to the left, Ronaldo to the right, and Berbatov to the centre. Tevez went everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

In this modern age, the full back positions are often maligned. People who don't know the game think that they're just positions for players who aren't good enough to play in the centre.

The truth of the matter is that the majority of play at the highest level begins with the full back. They have to be tactically adept, be superb players, start the lion's share of attacking moves, and be consummate defenders. The best teams are always the teams with the best full backs, it is a highly technical position.

And if you don't pressurise the full backs, the game is almost certainly gone.

In the first half, Vedran Corluka and Benoit Assou-Ekotto were both given free reign. Neither are players who would inspire under normal circumstances but given the room to move they can hang with the best.

What United did in the second half was close these two players down. With the supply routes cut, Spurs were forced inside, where United now had greater numbers.

With that in mind Spurs began to panic. Unsure of how to overcome this new approach by United, and now being hounded all over the pitch they began to let United back into a game they had given away at half time.

Spurs fans started to bite their nails, and remember the dark day of 29th September 2001. On that very day, Spurs were leading United 3-0 at half time, only for the Red Devils to score five times in the second half and win the game 5-3. Surely not...

United's first came from a dubious penalty. Tevez found Rooney whose slide rule pass split the Spurs defence in two and as Michael Carrick latched on to it Heurelho Gomes roared out from the Spurs goal.

The Spurs 'keeper made contact with the ball but referee Howard Webb did his growing reputation as the best referee in England some damage as he awarded a penalty, Gomes picking up a yellow to add insult to injury.

Ronaldo calmly chipped the penalty right down the middle to bring United back into the game. The goal had been coming for some time, the red onslaught barely giving Spurs time to breathe, never mind time to pass the ball.

Paul Scholes was introduced to the United midfield to make his 601st appearance in a red shirt, and he quickly picked up a yellow card after a series of fouls in the center circle.

To the uninitiated they were silly fouls, what was he doing? He had only been on the pitch a few minutes..

He was breaking Tottenham's rhythm. At 2-1, Spurs were still very much in the game. United may have had the impetus but they were refusing to allow Spurs even the slightest of possession. Such is the real professionalism of the game.

Moments later, United drew level and the game was as good as over. Dimitar Berbatov passed to Tevez, who played in Wayne Rooney. He cut inside and beat the keeper at the near post with a low strike—terrible keeping by Gomes.

Two minutes later it was three as Wayne Rooney, the star of the second half, picked the ball out on the left, flighted a beautiful ball between the Spurs central pairing of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate. Ronaldo ghosting in between to score with a diving header.

Spurs, having counted their chickens, at half-time were dead and buried. The game was over. United went for the glossy finish, and Spurs duly rolled over and gave it to them.

Rooney added his second and United's fourth after good work by Ronaldo. The United fans in Old Trafford began chanting "Who are ya?" to the travelling Tottenham faithful, who held their head in their hands remembering 2001.

To add insult to further injury,Dimitar Berbatov, a passenger until United got on top, added the fifth. The crucifixion was complete.

Spurs fans ordered extra beer in pubs to drown their sorrows, while Liverpool fans contemplated seppuku.

The game can be summed up in the final attack of the game.

Robbie Keane bore down on goal with only Van der Sar to beat, but the Dutchman bravely dived to his feet to deny Spurs a consolation goal when it would have been meaningless.

Van Der Sar showed Spurs and the rest of the league what professionalism is. It's doing the little things, the less glamorous things, the things that look nothing in the great scheme of things but add them all up together and you get a team who won't give up. A team who do the right things all the time.

And a team who will win trophies.

This is the reason why United have been more successful over the last 20 years than anyone else. The do the right things more than anyone else. Even on bad runs, they keep doing them, knowing that if they continue in that vein then the corner is only a short distance away.

After this result it will take a catastrophe of biblical proportion to drag the title to Anfield.

Spurs have learned a valuable lesson. They can be good on their day, but are still some distance from the height you have to reach to call yourself a champion.

United know what that height is, better than anyone. And this team have just set a target for this season that Liverpool or any other team in the league will not reach this year.

The title is theirs...to lose.

twitter / WillieGannon