Winter is coming. The evenings are starting to feel a little fresher and the sun no longer affords the heat that it did. After a break for the international matches, the Premier League is back and it is back with a weekend of fixtures that might have been designed by a panel to show up the best that club football has to offer. This afternoon, Manchester City were outplayed for long periods but still ran out 4-2 winners against Arsenal and Chelsea huffed and puffed their way to a 2-1 win at Stoke City. This evening, however, comes the main event. Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United – a fixture that runs like an oak stain through the history of English football.
Spurs, to the surprise of many, are second in the Premier League before kick-off. They have already been Liverpool on the opening day of the season and, in spite of any sort of reasonable thought, some are already saying that they could be the surprise of the season and snatch a Champions League place. Manchester United have already achieved a convincing impersonation of Jekyll and Hyde, imperious in a 5-0 win at Wigan Athletic but humiliatingly outplayed – and beaten – by Burnley. Even without the curious events of the last few weeks, however, this would be a match to watch.
The television cameras look down from vertiginous heights at White Hart Lane, and have done for many years. If you squint, you can almost make out the ghosts of the past. Jimmy Greaves’ almost obscene explosion of pace and goal in front of the “Match Of The Day” cameras in 1965, Ryan Giggs announcing himself by slaloming through the Spurs defence in 1992 or United coming from 3-0 down to win 5-3 in 2001. This is, in some respects, a match that could be tailor made for television. It’s the cocks of the north against the cockerels of the south, two clubs which embodied the rush towards commercialism from the 1980s yet retain an air of glamour about them.
Forty seconds in, White Hart Lane erupts. It is something of an understatement to say that they are playing with confidence, and this couldn’t be more demonstrated by Jermaine Defoe, who leaped acrobatically and overhead kicked Spurs into the lead. For the next twenty minutes, they look in control. Crouch heads narrowly wide – he is, perhaps unsurprisingly, still awaiting his first Premier League goal – and shoots narrowly over, but the tempo of the game changes completely twenty-five minutes in, when Manchester United level. Dimitar Berbatov – booed, of course, by the home crowd every time he gets near the ball – is tripped on the edge of the penalty area, and Ryan Giggs curls the ball over the wall and into the top corner.
With this, the power balance of the match spins on its head. United suddenly look sharper and more alert. It is Spurs that are starting to misplace their passes and United that are moving with the greater fluidity. The visitors should take the lead when Cudicini saves Rooney’s shot, Berbatov’s follow-up is blocked on the line and he blazes the ball over the crossbar with the third attempt. Five minutes from half-time, though, Manchester United take the lead. Spurs fail to clear a corner, Scholes’ shot is blocked and Anderson of all people, on his seventy-sixth appearance for Manchester United, drives the ball into the bottom corner from twenty-five yards.
Manchester United turn the screw in the second half, although it does briefly look as if Spurs will find a way back into the match in the early stages. Ben Foster makes one quite brilliant save from a long range shot and Peter Crouch heads the resulting corner onto the crossbar. On the hour, Paul Scholes is sent off for a second yellow card and it looks as if United are wobbling again. It takes Wayne Rooney to lift them and wrap the game up for them. Midway through the second half he brings another fine save from Cudicini and with twelve minutes to play he settles United nerves when he latches onto a long, sweeping pass from Darren Fletcher and rolls the ball in to make the points safe. Rooney has a shot blocked in injury time which could have made the margin of victory even greater, but most of the closing stages of the match are really an exercise in running down the clock.
This was a refreshingly attacking match, played by two teams that could each have scored four or five goals. United, for taking their chances, deserved their win – a result which gives the Premier League table a very familiar look, with them now in second place behind Chelsea – but Spurs can take some heart from the fact that their team is still gelling and from the fact that they remain above Arsenal in the Premier League table. Talk of them being able to win the Premier League was obviously overstated, but they look good for a European place and may yet be able to launch a challenge for a Premier League place. Manchester United, on the other hand, are looking at their ominous best. It’s difficult to imagine them not being in at least the top two for the rest of the season.