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Friday 29 August 2014

United slip up in snow

Wrapped up against the blizzard, with his woolly hat on back-to-front and his hands plunged into his pockets, Alex Ferguson thought he had seen off the storm yesterday, but his side are not the only ones who save their best moments for that window of opportunity known as "Fergie time".

This Tottenham Hotspur team that equalised in injury-time refused to go quietly, as so many of their predecessors have done over the years. Not since the 1989-1990 season, when Spurs won both home and away fixtures against United, have they taken as many as four points from one of Ferguson's teams -- as they have done this season.

Spurs have given up being a soft touch a long time ago, but even by the high standards of the last four years this was an impressive performance. Ferguson characterised their efforts to get an equaliser in the dying embers of the game as "long balls into the box" but however they attacked, Spurs did so with the conviction of a side who believe they are good enough to compete with the best.

When Clint Dempsey finally found a foot of space to tuck in Aaron Lennon's prodded cross for the equaliser there was a touch of United's famous determination to win games at the very last, which is just about the greatest compliment that you could pay Andre Villas-Boas's team.

It was the first time United have dropped points in the title race since they drew with Swansea City on 23 December and they finish the weekend with their lead over Manchester City cut to five points. Ferguson mentioned that City still have to come to White Hart Lane on 20 April and indicated that he expected the locals to give them every bit of a hard time.

They were forbidding conditions yesterday, a snowstorm which meant that in the moments before kick-off, Ferguson's faithful kitman Albert Morgan discreetly handed his boss a United branded hat. Later in the game, Villas-Boas would wrap a blanket around his legs. Out on the pitch there was no hiding place and by the second half it was committed and full-blooded.



Criticism

David De Gea would later face the criticism of pundit Gary Neville for his part in Dempsey's equaliser but he made the first of a series of good saves in the 13th minute when he blocked Aaron Lennon's shot and then got up to keep out the rebound from Jermain Defoe. Lennon was excellent all afternoon, comprehensively outshining his team-mate Gareth Bale.

The goal they conceded was soft from Spurs' point of view. Moments earlier, Tom Cleverley had been called over to the touchline by Mike Phelan and told to switch sides with Danny Welbeck, taking up a position on the right side of the three attacking players behind Robin Van Persie. It worked perfectly.

It was those two players who worked the goal for United, Welbeck carrying the ball from left to right across the face of the area before picking out Cleverley on that wing. Very little pressure was applied to the midfielder when he sent his nicely struck cross to the back post and Kyle Walker had allowed Van Persie the freedom to squeeze a header inside Hugo Lloris' post.

The 22nd goal of Van Persie's season was testament once more to the striker's extraordinary ability to score so many different types of goals and yesterday he did not get many more chances. With Wayne Rooney a second-half substitute, it was the Dutchman's job to labour alone against Michael Dawson and Steven Caulker and he was not given much daylight by either.

There was another exceptional save from De Gea before half-time, this time with his legs when Bale's shot took a wicked deflection on its way through. He made a similar save in the second half when the excellent Mousa Dembele tricked his way through the United defence and teed up Dempsey for a shot.

For all Spurs' pressure, United should have had a penalty for Caulker's foul on Rooney soon after the United striker came on after the hour. It provoked a brief outburst from Ferguson against Simon Beck, the linesman, whom he has never forgiven for an offside Didier Drogba goal scored against United at Old Trafford in 2010.



Trigger

There were fine performances from Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in the centre of United's defence, not least the challenge from Ferdinand on Defoe when the Spurs striker momentarily delayed in pulling the trigger on 77 minutes. Again it was Lennon who drove Spurs forward on that occasion, a thunderball of long arms and short legs who ran at United at every occasion.

Spurs could sense that there was something to be had from this game as United fell further back, failing to make any impact on the counter-attack. It came on 92 mins 10 secs when substitute Benoit Assou-Ekotto crossed, De Gea punched weakly and Lennon clipped the ball back in for Dempsey to score. "You can't do that," Neville said of De Gea. "They are big, big moments ... that punch has cost his team."

United have now played every one of their away fixtures against top seven opposition bar Arsenal. Off to Qatar for warm-weather training last night they know, however, that had they won this game their strength in the eyes of their local rivals would have grown that much more.

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