AMID the bedlam that greeted Jermain Defoe’s magnificently acrobatic opening goal after just 52 seconds, only one man with connections to Tottenham Hotspur remained impassive.
As the home hoards whooped in delight and Defoe was engulfed by a swarm of team-mates, down in the home dug-out, Harry Redknapp merely folded his arms, placed one fingernail in his mouth and began to chew.
Redknapp, a manager whose haggard features bear testament to a life spent on football’s coal-face, has been around long enough to know that scoring first against Manchester United can be a very bad idea – the equivalent of climbing into the tiger’s cage and not so much tweaking its tail as trying to cut it off entirely. Sure enough, United bared red tooth and claw with a comeback that managed to be both dramatic and numbingly predictable.
When the dust had settled, Redknapp was asked to pick his man of the match. After name-checking the tireless Darren Fletcher, the indomitable Wayne Rooney, the ageless Ryan Giggs and the imperious Rio Ferdinand, Redknapp realised he was in danger of simply naming Alex Ferguson’s starting line-up.
“They’ve just got star performers everywhere, in every position,” he sighed. “They always have options when they’re on the ball – they look up and there is always movement around them, men coming short, off the line and into holes.
“At half-time I thought: ‘That might just be as good as they can play.’ We were playing okay but they came back and they were so good in the second half. People have been writing them off and saying Chelsea will win the title but United will be right up there.”
Redknapp was right in hailing United’s collective superhuman effort, but great teams still need outstanding individuals and, in Ryan Giggs, the visitors had the afternoon’s stand-out performer.
If Ferguson has assumed a God-like status among Manchester’s red denizens over the past two decades, there is little doubt who is his representative on earth. Giggs’ exemplary standards and consummate professionalism are now part of the Premier League furniture but days like this serve as a reminder of how much he will be missed when finally decides to skip into the sunset.
This, for the record, was his 700th start for Manchester United, an occasion he marked by sweeping in a delectable free-kick to cancel out Defoe’s opener and ensure he has now scored in 20 consecutive league seasons, a record that stretches back to May 1991.
The numbers look good, yet they are only a partial gauge of Giggs’ value to United. It is the little things which make him so precious: his ability to relieve pressure with a measured pass or a clever turn into space, the way he can defuse a volatile situation with a quiet word or arm around the shoulder.
The Welshman made his influence felt in the second half when Paul Scholes, as is his wont, was dismissed for two brainless challenges in the space of nine minutes. Spurs were just building momentum but, by simply retaining possession and pinging his passes with absolute precision, the 35-year-old helped to draw their sting.
Giggs preferred to credit others clad in red, saluting Anderson’s low driven finish to put United ahead just before half-time and Wayne Rooney’s composure in slashing in a killer third with 12 minutes remaining, so it was left to one of his opponents to hail the real hero.
“Ryan was magnificent,” admitted Peter Crouch. “He was Player of the Year last year, deservedly so, and anyone you talk to in the game can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s the example for others to follow and he seems to be getting better and better as the seasons go on, which is unbelievable.”
Defeat brought Spurs’ perfect start to the season to a shuddering halt and inevitably punctured some of the optimism which had bubbled up in north London. Even so, Redknapp retained his perspective in the aftermath, reacting incredulously to a suggestion that he might have to consider changes for his next fixture, away to Chelsea on Sunday.
“Oh yeah, I’m looking to make wholesale changes, they’ve let me down this year,” he quipped. “They have to go, frankly. They’ve had their chance....”
That drew a few laughs although this brutal dissection was a reminder of the gulf that exists between United and those that pretend to their crown.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs (Manchester United): The days when Giggs would leave a red vapour trail behind him as he streaked down the left flank are gone but he has substituted pace for poise in his twilight years. He was outstanding here, keeping his head when others were losing theirs and single-handedly propelling United back into the game with his superb free-kick.
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (West Midlands) 6: Some of his decisions were peculiar and disrupted the flow of a feisty game, but his decision to dismiss Scholes appeared sound enough.
MATCH RATING: *** Not a classic compared to recent meetings between these two but still interesting enough. United were impressive in chiselling out three points in adversity.
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