Wednesday 17 January 2018

Ferguson’s fighting qualities pull hobbling United into final straight

Giggs pen 59 pen 86, Nani 81
King 70

The Portuguese winger Nani celebrates putting his side back into the lead during Manchester United's win over Tottenham on Saturday at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty Images
The Portuguese winger Nani celebrates putting his side back into the lead during Manchester United's win over Tottenham on Saturday at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty Images

Ian Herbert

SO, the last bend has been cleared and a son of the Greater Glasgow conurbation, who has socialism in his heart and the first week of May in his sights, is still standing – the tide of blue which threatened to engulf him long ago as much within his grasp as the new-brand campaigners who think yellow and green.

Alex Ferguson might not go in for leadership debates on the BBC, but he certainly has something to tell Gordon Brown about toughing it out.

If Ferguson is celebrating two weeks from now then it will have been the league title to which his personal contribution has been the most extraordinary of all, given the way that United have hobbled into the home straight. There was a collective gasp when a team sheet without Wayne Rooney or Rio Ferdinand even in the margins was circulated on Saturday while a Tottenham team fresh from defeats of Arsenal and Chelsea limbered up, pretty much as favourites. It was a Torquay bath chair moment, to quote Ferguson’s favoured way of describing how the football commentariat want to put him out to pasture, yet he survived it.

There was no one in red to brush Tottenham aside in the way that Cristiano Ronaldo had strangled the life out of them after Harry Redknapp’s team had gone 2-0 up at the interval in the remarkable corresponding fixture, exactly one year ago, but Ferguson wrung enough from the ranks to get the job done. It was emblematic of the state of United’s health that Patrice Evra had been throwing up on the pitch shortly before winning a decisive penalty and the matchwinner Nani was doing something similar when Darren Fletcher screamed at him to maintain his position late in the game. To compoundmatters, AntonioValenciapicked up a knee injury while Gary Neville strained his calf, making both doubtful for Sunday’s trip to Sunderland.

Nani was the player who flounced out of Old Trafford early during that last Spurs visit, having been substituted in each of last season’s six previous Premier League starts. Everyone decreed that he would be gone by the summer but United fans have Ferguson to thank for retaining him for this, his finest hour in the shirt. And at the axis of the move that Nani started and finished with a magisterial clip over Heurelho Gomes was Federico Macheda – John O’Shea was the one screaming orders at the young Italian, who returned the shouts with interest. Ferguson knows the exuberance of youth is Macheda’s strength.

Dimitar Berbatov’s psychology is beyond anyone’s comprehension. There were the usual angry gestures – Valencia always seems to bear the brunt of them – but United must make do and mend with a player who will not fetch the £30.5m they paid for him. “All we ask from Berba is a little bit of something else that we haven’t seen for a while,” said United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan with remarkable candour. “We have seen him do it in the past, and when we keep pushing and pushing him and he responds the right way he is a handful for anyone. If you look at the Giggses and the Scholeses, we demand that as well – and they produce. Berba is no different in that respect.”

The defeat still leaves Tottenham favourites for the fourth Champions League spot, providing they claim at least a point at Eastlands 10 days from now, though Redknapp is unlikely to repeat the calamity of deploying the very left-footed Benoit Assou-Ekotto at right-back against Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy. The Spurs manager was pessimistic about the role Aaron Lennon can play for him, having returned from four months out. “He never got into a sprint. How he will be this week and whether he will be ready next week I’m not sure,” he said, though Lennon troubled O’Shea enough in 34 minutes to comfort Fabio Capello.

The same goes for Ledley King’s latest commanding performance. With Ferdinand’s groin injury physiologically linked to his longstanding back complaint, King is actually beginning to look the lesser risk for South Africa, given that a player who cannot train is a better option than one who cannot play. With breaks between fixtures, King can at least contribute to the group stage of the tournament.

Ferguson is well into the season’s last stages, though Ryan Giggs suggested after converting his inaugural Premier League penalties that United need “someone to do us a favour” where stopping that blue tide is concerned. A perfectly rational scenario would have Rafael Benitez delivering a parting shot by allowing Carlo Ancelotti’s side an easy ride at Anfield next Sunday to keep Liverpool and United on 18 titles apiece. Expect Ferguson’s discussion of that point to dominate his own campaign talk this week in his battle bus.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1) Van der Sar; Rafael (Macheda, 79), Evans, Vidic, Evra (O’Shea, 67); Scholes, Fletcher; Valencia (Carrick, 59), Giggs, Nani; Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Hargreaves, Brown, Gibson.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2) Gomes; Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, King, Bale; Bentley (Lennon, 66), Huddlestone, Palacios, Modric; Pavlyuchenko (Crouch, 75), Defoe (Gudjohnsen, 54). Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Kaboul, Jenas, Bassong.

Booked: Man Utd Nani.

Man of the match Scholes.

Attendance: 75,268.

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