United continue to reap rewards of loyalty

Yesterday’s result at White Hart Lane suggests there is more to come.

On a day when Chelsea sacked a manager for the sixth time in less than eight years, maybe it was fitting that Manchester United, who haven’t wielded the axe since November 1986, secured a crucial victory in north London that ensures the 2012 title race will be fought out exclusively between themselves and derby rivals Manchester City.

It wasn’t the greatest United display in manager Alex Ferguson’s reign, which now of course spans more than a quarter of a century, but the Scot described the match as the most of important of his team’s season so far and maybe he was right; because a header from Wayne Rooney and two well-taken goals from Ashley Young, largely against the run of play and in a match that Tottenham dominated for long periods, showed why United are title contenders and their opponents are not.

The result leaves them only two points behind leaders City but 11 ahead of Spurs with only 11 games to play — so if there ever was a three-way fight for the title, there certainly isn’t any more. This is now a two-horse race.

Incidentally, United are now 18 points ahead of lamentable Chelsea, who are struggling to put together a challenge for Champions League qualification let alone for the title; so it’s hard not to speculate whether things could have been very different in the Premier League if Roman Abramovich had stuck by Jose Mourinho, or Carlo Ancelotti for that matter, in the same way that United have backed Ferguson.

Roberto Di Matteo will be the eighth manager in the Russian’s nine-year reign (ninth if you include a one-match spell as caretaker manager for Ray Wilkins) but there has been no sacking at Old Trafford since November 6, 1986, when Ron Atkinson was dismissed following a 4-1 League Cup defeat at Southampton — when United were also second bottom in the old First Division.

The decision was made by United board members Martin Edwards, Maurice Watkins, Mike Edelson and Bobby Charlton on a flight back from Southampton to Manchester and Edwards insists it wasn’t made lightly. “It wasn’t easy because we liked Ron,” he admitted recently. “We’d never finished lower than fourth and he was a good man.”

Clearly United have been rewarded for their innate loyalty with 25 years of success since that fateful day; and yesterday’s result at White Hart Lane suggests there is more to come. After all when a team plays badly and yet still wins 3-1 away to a title rival — to make it three league wins in succession — there cannot be much to complain about.

As for Tottenham, there remains a suspicion that despite impressive progress under manager Harry Redknapp they still lack the inner belief to win the big games that turn top-three contenders into potential champions. How else do you explain results this season such as a 5-1 home defeat against Manchester City, an away defeat against the same side, a 3-0 reverse at Old Trafford and of course a 5-2 humiliation at Arsenal?

Those are the results that have prevented Spurs fulfilling their ambition of challenging for the title and given the quality of their players, perhaps it has as much to do with mentality as form.

Not that Spurs lacked form at White Hart Lane on this occasion because they dominated for long periods and worked tirelessly to harry Ferguson’s men in possession. They could have been ahead early on with a goal from Emmanuel Adebayor that was disallowed for handball and didn’t deserve to be behind at the break after Rooney struck against the run of play; and in fact it was only one piece of naive defending from a throw-in, which led to Young’s first goal, that sealed their fate.

Nevertheless, it was a landmark victory for United and a worrying one for Spurs who face a tough trip to Everton in the league next weekend and suddenly have Arsenal breathing down their necks for third place. That in itself will be a fascinating tussle but the truth is it will have little or no bearing on where the Premier League trophy is housed in May.

From now on, with 11 matches to play and 10 weeks in which to play them, it is City v United all the way.


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