Old Trafford has a swaggering confidence about it this evening. A new sponsorship deal with a package delivery company will be bringing an eyebrow-raising amount of money into the club and, perhaps more importantly as far as the supporters are concerned, less than convincing starts to the season for Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool will have only served to heighten the expectation that league title number twenty will be on its way to the club by the end of next spring. The ground is almost completely bereft of green and gold scarves these days, too, and to mark the new sponsorship deal, the new sponsors have given out free scarves with “Champions” emblazoned across them. Corporate Football 1-0 Grassroots Protest.
Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, finally get to start their league season after a delay that came about thanks to rioting by the people of their own back yard. Spurs’ failure to qualify for the Champions League means that they may be back to their default position of several of the previous few seasons, of being a selling club this summer. The most conspicuous name is the one that isn’t on their team sheet. Luka Modric’s absenteeism this evening is being hailed by many as proof that his rumoured move to Stamford Bridge is all but a done deal, and there are ghosts from summers past on the Manchester United substitutes bench this evening, where Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov – combined cost: £49.35m – are warming their back-sides.
Yet for the first forty-five minutes, Spurs hold their own. After the traditional Spurs opening – which consists of five minutes’ worth of the defenders acting as if they were only introduced to each other in the tunnel and might not have properly learned each others’ names just yet – the first half has the feel of a first date about it, with both teams looking a little reticent to at each other at full pelt, but there are half-chances at each end. Cleverley’s low shot brings a fine save from the Spurs goalkeeper – and a man who will have made some middle-aged hearts leap this evening at the imformation imparted by commentator Alan Parry that he is forty years old – but Manchester United, as they did more frequently than might be remembered last season, at least away from Old Trafford, didn’t always purr like a finely-tuned engine last season and Spurs manage a couple of pot-shots of their own, through Rafael Van Der Vaart and Gareth Bale, which require the attention of David de Gea. Half-time arrives with the score goalless and Spurs good value for still being on level terms.
It takes fifteen minutes for Manchester United to breach the Spurs defence, but it is a goal that says a lot about the team – a pin-point from Cleverley and an arrow of a header from Danny Welbeck into the bottom right-hand corner of Friedel’s goal. There has been much mediocrity on display this evening, but perhaps it is the ability to turn this sort of move in from practically nowhere that sets them apart from the rest. It sometimes feels like a tap that they can simply turn on and off, and it irrevocably alters the momentum of this match. The goal acts as a lubricant, loosening the more uptight aspects of Manchester United’s evening. It feels as if they are now moving up through the gears, and Spurs are now reliant upon Friedel finding some inspirational form to keep his team anything like in the game. Spurs, meanwhile, are now picking at possession as and when they can, but the match is slipping away from them.
With fourteen minutes left to go, though, Manchester United tie the game up with a goal of such fluidity and brilliance that you can almost hear an audible sigh from the other nineteen managers of the Premier League at having seen it. From de Gea at one end through to Welbeck’s back-heel for Anderson to lift the ball over Friedel, it is a goal of simplicity and complexity, a mixture of absolute technical brilliance and the elegant beauty of every player in the team getting every single pass right first time from one end of the pitch to the other. Spurs try to regroup, and some questionable goalkeeping from de Gea allows Defoe an open goal from an angle, only for his powerful shot strike to strike the post. By this time, though, Manchester United are threatening with every attack and within minutes Wayne Rooney somehow manages to scoop the ball over the crossbar from a yard out. It’s a temporary respite, of course. With four minutes left to play, Ryan Giggs crosses from the right and Rooney, given the freedom of the edge of the six yard box by a worn out Spurs defence, angles a fine header past Friedel.
So, evenly matched for fifty-five minutes, all it took was one goal to open the floodgates and Manchester United strolled away at a canter. Spurs, meanwhile, simply ran out of steam after a decent enough first half performance, and after Welbeck opened the scoring, it was only a terrific performance from Brad Friedel that kept the score down to something respectable – they have work to do if they are to regain a Champions League place, if this evening was anything to go by. This ability to suddenly turn on the tap is perhaps one of the key characteristics of the Manchester United team of this last couple of years. On the other hand, there is a sheer relentless about this Manchester United team, a characteristic that they also showed in vast swathes last season, particularly at Old Trafford. This combination frequently feels unanswerable, and the upshot of this is that it may be a long, hard winter for their challengers at the top of the Premier League.
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