Tuesday 19 September 2017

Nani shines in Rooney's absence

LOUISE TAYLOR at Old Trafford

MANCHESTER UNITED 3

TOTTENHAM 1

Alex Ferguson can rarely have been happier to do Manchester City a favour. In denting Tottenham Hotspur's Champions League ambitions, Manchester United's manager not only saw his side clamber back above Chelsea at the top of the table but pile immense psychological pressure on Carlo Ancelotti's players.

United's ascendancy may be temporary -- their rivals can reclaim top spot today -- yet, despite the surprise absence of Wayne Rooney, they made it plain the title is back on the Old Trafford agenda.

Not all clouds come silver-lined but, in the second half, Rooney's absence permitted Nani to assume centre stage in devastatingly creative fashion before emphasising his sudden indispensability with a sublime goal.

It arrived sandwiched between two Ryan Giggs penalties -- amazingly his first in the league -- and shortly after Ledley King briefly silenced Old Trafford by equalising. United though are too battle-hardened to be deterred by such minor setbacks. "The most important thing today was that we kept our nerve," said Ferguson. "There were no signs of nerves whatsoever -- even after they equalised. Experience helps us."

Harry Redknapp had boldly configured Spurs in a 4-4-2 guise. For a time they threatened to at least hold their hosts to a draw but, ultimately, a Nani-inspired United proved too strong.

"With no Rooney, or Rio Ferdinand, it was a real opportunity," said Redknapp, whose team rarely troubled Edwin van der Sar. "A point would have been massive for us in the race for fourth but poor defending cost us. We weren't strong enough to get hold of the ball and play. United pushed their full-backs forward so, if we could have held on to it, we might have done them some damage."

This failure to retain possession proved a recurring theme of an anticlimatic first half. Its underwhelming nature was arguably attributable to the enormous effort expended, especially by Spurs, in high-energy attempts at regaining the ball.

The downside of such often manic industry was that, with one or two notable exceptions -- Luka Modric and Nani -- players seemed too mentally tired to conjure defence-splitting passes. If imagination was generally lacking so, too, was the ability to keep the ball for long periods; Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone was a serial culprit. Unfortunately, the resultant pressure on his team-mates to make frantic amends saw Jermain Defoe forced so deep he was unable to menace Jonny Evans and company effectively.

Small wonder one of the biggest early cheers was reserved for Owen Hargreaves -- back on United's bench after 580 days out nursing bad knees -- as he jogged through a warm-up routine.

Shortly afterwards an increasingly influential Dimitar Berbatov, playing against his old club, skilfully controlled Rafael's pass across the 18-yard box before striking a shot just over Heurelho Gomes's crossbar.

The second half began with Patrice Evra being sick on the pitch but he recovered sufficiently to sling in an elusive cross from which Berbatov came close with a header. United had done enough shadowboxing and the brooding technical area presence of Ferguson, resplendent in a summer suit, reminded them of the desperate need to land some telling blows.

The Scot ventured a rare smile when Benoit Assou-Ekotto's trip on Patrice Evra following Berbatov's clever pass won his side a penalty. It grew considerably broader when, despite Gomes' dive the right way, Giggs squeezed his kick into the corner.

The equaliser originated from another dead ball and featured King outjumping Michael Carrick to connect with Gareth Bales's corner and power the ball past Van der Sar.

"I think King will go to the World Cup with England," said Redknapp. "Ledley doesn't train and he needs six days between games. He defies everything you're supposed to do but he's that important I think Capello will take him."

Federico Macheda, Ferguson's young Italian striker, has not made the progress expected of him this season but, very shortly after replacing Rafael, Macheda created United's second goal. Accelerating smartly on to his astute pass, Nani advanced before showing off technical excellence to cheekily lift the ball over the advancing Gomes.

"Nani's finish was absolutely brilliant," enthused Ferguson, who appears unsure whether Rooney will play again this season. "To have the audacity to do that tells you all about the lad's courage."

United's manager is big on mental bravery and devoted part of his programme notes to an ode to Modric, possibly a hint that, should he tire of London, a new home at Old Trafford could await the Croatian.

It was not Modric's fault that several team-mates did not always read his clever passes, thereby wasting many good ideas. Ferguson though will surely have noted the cameo moment when he sold Paul Scholes a dummy.

Yet even Modric could not plot Spurs a path back into the game and, possibly, the Champions League. Instead, when Wilson Palacios shoved Nani over, a second penalty was awarded.

Giggs stepped forward once more and, although Gomes again dived the correct way, the kick's clinical execution defied Redknapp's goalkeeper. The bad news for Chelsea is that Ferguson's entire team seem in similarly ruthless mood.

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