Patrice Evra was once, twice, three times violently sick on the Old Trafford turf but Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotpsur left Manchester forced to stomach the pain of defeat. Evra’s all too literal contribution to a gutsy 3-1 Manchester United victory sent Sir Alex that Ferguson’s side top of the table with just two games remaining.
The French fullback may have left everything on the pitch in pursuit of the points but Ferguson’s side overcame even greater obstacles at Old Trafford to heap pressure on Chelsea in the Premier League title race, with the Londoners not playing until tomorrow.
Missing both Wayne Rooney – absent with a groin injury that is likely to keep the striker on the sidelines for the remaining matches of the campaign – and Rio Ferdinand, Ferguson could be forgiven for feeling as anxious as the Old Trafford crowd after the visitors’ second half equaliser.
“The most important thing today was that we kept our nerve,” claimed the Scot, in the face of palpable tension from a capacity Old Trafford crowd.
“There were no signs of nerves whatsoever – even after they equalised. Experience helps us.”
Indeed, long before Ryan Giggs’ brace of coolly taken penalties and Nani’s exquisite goal sealed United’s victory, the visiting side threatened to spoil Ferguson’s chase for honours.
Such is the increase in Spurs’ star this season that the visitors’ limp performance surprised many in the crowd, not least the Londoners’ manager.
In truth a tepid first half rarely saw the best of either side, with neither United nor Harry Redknapp’s Champions League chasing outfit able to stamp their mark on the encounter.
Ferguson chose to pack his midfield, no doubt cognoscent of Luka Modric’s contribution to Spurs renaissance this season. But with Rooney absent, Dimitar Berbatov ploughed an often frustrating lone furrow in an opening period short on excitement but high on tension.
Not until the half-hour did United seriously threaten Heurelho Gomes’ net, with Berbatov finding time and space to strike a dipping volley just wide of the Brazilian’s goal.
King then superbly blocked another Berbatov strike, this time from inside the area, before Antonio Valencia fired straight at Gomes when clean through.
Even so, Old Trafford reserved the biggest cheer of a low-key half for Owen Hargraves, who joined United’s bench despite sitting out two days of training this week. The injury-plagued midfielder has missed the past 18 months following surgery to both knees.
Minutes into the second period and the spring heat-wave that descended on Old Trafford claimed its first victim, with Evra violently sick. The Frenchman played on after lengthy attention, later unsurprisingly replaced by John O’Shea.
But United’s most consistent defender this season remained on the pitch long-enough to play a key role in the opening goal. Berbatov – increasingly influential – smartly played Evra in to force Benoit Assou-Ekotto into the foul that brought the first of United’s two penalties. Giggs beat the ‘keeper’s dive to, albeit briefly, relieve the tension in M16.
The goal should have liberated the home side. Instead, with Valencia sacrificed for Michael Carrick, United sat back on the lead and invited the visitors forward.
As Ferguson’s outfit dropped deeper Spurs pressed on, winning the corner from which King headed home the visitors’ goal.
For a quarter-hour the match could have fallen either way but Ferguson’s gamble, introducing teenage striker Federico Macheda for Rafael da Silva, paid hefty dividends.
Indeed, the Italian’s pass found Nani, who wonderfully chipped Gomes to finally break Spurs’ resistance.
Minutes later and the Portuguese winger’s charge into the box drew a second foul – this time from Wilson Palacios – and referee Andre Marriner had little option but to award a second spot-kick of the afternoon.
Giggs fired home. Incredibly these were the Welshman’s first penalties in the Premier League for the club.
Now Ferguson and the crowd could finally relax.
“Nani’s finish was absolutely brilliant,” said Ferguson, although Rooney’s new injury will temper any excitement.
“To have the audacity to do that tells you all about the lad’s courage.
“We had a bit of sickness with two or three players today, but we’ve got eight days to recover, so hopefully we’ll be okay.”
Ferguson substituted Evra in the second period before seeing Nani also throw up on the pitch late in the game.
“Evra just felt it yesterday, but he felt okay to play and it just happened. Maybe the heat brought it on a little bit, it was a warm day.” the Scot added.
“I don’t know what’s happened, whether it’s something he ate or is something going around the place.”
Nevertheless, Ferguson’s delight with three points in – on paper at least – by far United’s toughest fixture of the Premier League run-in is understandable.
Moreover, the result heaps pressure on Carlo Ancelotti Chelsea to match the result or face a trip to Anfield next weekend requiring a win.
Then we’ll see who’s sick with nerves.