Saturday 20 January 2018

Ferguson's fire key to holding off challenge of noisy neighbours

James Lawton

James Lawton

There has always been reason to suspect the nature of Manchester United's prospective 20th title triumph and if it should still happen after their icy setback at White Hart Lane the critical verdict will have become even easier to anticipate.

It will have to go down as a victory – not for the old bravado of Alex Ferguson's football but his ability to conjure as much contempt for the idea of defeat in bad times as in good.

On this occasion, he came within a minute of a classic example of this resistance to changing times. In some ways it would have been an act of larceny if Tottenham's Clint Dempsey hadn't held his nerve to score the late equaliser, but though United's lead was trimmed to five points there was still remarkable evidence of an extraordinary will to get the job done under the heaviest pressure.

There were times when they were at risk of being engulfed by the considerable resources of Spurs, and David de Gea, who has been just one of United's points of vulnerability this season, was required to produce some remarkable pieces of defiance before Dempsey settled on a ball from Aaron Lennon with the natural-born certainty of a superior gunfighter.


However, there was still always a thread of defiance in this United, who go from week to week disputing the notion that along with their capacity to fight they have a genius for riding their luck. Indeed, there were, beyond the continued promise that Robin van Persie will carry them into another chapter of outstanding achievement, some performances of impressive character.

Will the deeper-running strength of champions Manchester City, with David Silva finding again some of his most influential form and the raw edge of their European catastrophe beginning to fade, overhaul them for a second straight season?

Maybe, but it remains the boldest of bets. If the decision to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench suggested that Ferguson remains troubled by the form and the confidence of a player who was once so integral to all his hopes of continuing to resist the challenge presented by the resources of his neighbours, the old warrior could take some encouragement in a performance that at one point threatened to be one of the more impressive of the campaign.

Michael Carrick, a player who appeared to be drifting away from the formidable levels of skill and game management that were developing a few seasons ago, was again a force of intelligence and nerve yesterday. In front of a defence which for most of the game showed new levels of authority, Carrick read the play brilliantly and also produced moments of beautiful penetration.

It was a contribution, which along with the dash of young Rafael and the latest evidence of Danny Welbeck's thoroughbred turn of foot, kept United in league-leading business right up to that final crushing moment.

For Tottenham there was the encouragement that Andre Villas-Boas has a level of talent with which he may indeed be able to return the club to that dizzy level of championship contenders they enjoyed in the middle of last season.

It may take a season or two, but United's final struggle to protect what they had gained with some impressive poise and counter-attacking in the first half had much to do with Spurs' swaggering aggression.

Ferguson can certainly conclude that his team are unlikely to suffer quite such an investigation outside of the threat of City. Certainly nothing he may have glimpsed at Stamford Bridge yesterday gave reason to believe Chelsea or Arsenal's agonies are likely to be over any time soon.

It means that the Premier League is likely to remain a contest between two teams of not precisely equal strength – City surely have an edge in the depth of their talent if not their guaranteed resolution – for some time.

United have reason to believe that their level of resolution was maintained buoyantly enough yesterday, and in Van Persie they have a man who can make the difference in almost any circumstances.

A much more significant contribution is, of course, required from Rooney. Though he undoubtedly had a strong argument when he claimed a penalty after being clipped by Steven Caulker, his effect as a substitute was dismayingly slight.

There was some talk of the energy he brought to a challenging situation. Energy? When was that considered the prime asset of a player who for long has been the pick of his generation?

United have a hard race to the finish line and it will require a supreme effort. Rooney's contribution may prove pivotal, one way or another, both for his club and a reputation that has never been under so much pressure. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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