There is something in Manchester United’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur this weekend that evokes memories of classic games of the past. The romantic’s choice, as the cliché goes. Hackneyed though the tale has become, seven United victories in the past 10 fixtures between these two sides tells a story not of a fierce rivalry, but the Reds’ dominance over the north London club in recent years.
Yet, Spurs’ victory at Old Trafford in September adds spice to Sunday’s return in the capital. It was the first Tottenham victory at United in 27 attempts, ending a 23-year wait for a victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
The Londoners’ ability to break at pace unsettled United’s back four last autumn, with André Villas-Boas’ outfit taking advantage of the Reds’ openness in midfield. United will surely be more compact against the Portuguese manager’s outfit this time around.
Indeed, Spurs’ run of four victories in the past five matches has lifted Villas-Boas side into the top four – the Londoners are now favourites to secure a Champions League place next season ahead of rivals Arsenal, and an in-form Everton side.
Impressive stuff, especially given Villas-Boas’ difficult start to the season, with supporters and the media piling pressure on the Portuguese manager from the start of the campaign. No longer; the cloud of doubt has lifted and Spurs will be chasing a first league double over United since the 1973/4 campaign.
But with Wayne Rooney now fit, and Robin van Persie in irresistible goal-scoring form, United will call on the what Villas-Boas calls the best strike partnership in the country. He’s not wrong, of course. Still, it is Spurs’ firepower, even without the absent Emanuele Adebayor, that will concern Ferguson this weekend, especially given United’s continued propensity to leak goals.
“I’ve watched quite a few of their games and their form has been consistent,” said Sir Alex on Friday.
“I think Spurs have done well this season .They’re in good form and I think they’ll challenge for the top four. Villas-Boas has Spurs in the way he wants them and I think there are signs they’re playing how he wants them to play. That’s what a coach wants to do – get his philosophy across.”
Yet, United’s record at White Hart Lane, where Ferguson’s side hasn’t suffered defeat in more than a decade, belies the Londoners annual challenge for a Champions League place. After all, Spurs’ traditional attacking style at home often plays into United’s hands.
“We have a fantastic record there,” adds Ferguson. “It’s a stadium that’s old-fashioned, football-wise, like Aston Villa and Everton. There’s always a good atmosphere and we enjoy playing there. But we can’t take anything for granted. We have a hard game on Sunday. We have to perform.”
Injuries will play a part in that performance, at least in the back-four where Jonny Evans is again absent. Captain Nemanja Vidić could partner Rio Ferdinand, although Ferguson will certainly be concern about the hosts’ pace in forward areas.
In midfield Anderson could make his first start of 2013 after completing an hour of United’s 1-0 FA Cup victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford last week. Nani, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa will compete for two places on United’s flanks, with Ashley Young still unfit.
Meanwhile, one man who will not make the trip south is Scot Darren Fletcher, who misses the rest of the campaign following surgery this week. Fletcher, who has made 10 appearances this season, underwent the operation to cure a persistent bowel condition.
The midfielder’s continued absence surely places into doubt whether he will ever play for the club again, although the party line remains that Fletcher will return for the 2013/14 campaign.
“This improves Darren’s prospects of returning,” adds Ferguson.
“He had to change his game and he hasn’t been the Darren Fletcher of three or four years ago in the games this season. Instead, he was sitting in front of the back four and he did well. That could be his role in the future. When he comes back, and I hope he does, it will be in a different role.
“It was something we thought would happen anyway. He tried his best to cope with the condition with the treatments he was using but, in the last couple of weeks, it’s come back. This operation will hopefully solve the situation.”
Meanwhile, Scott Parker will start for Tottenham with Brazilian Sandro set to miss the rest of the season after sustaining a serious knee injury. Adebayor is at the Africa Cup of Nations leaving Villas-Boas to pick Jermain Defoe and Clint Dempsey in attack.
Still, with Gareth Bale having given Ferdinand a chastening experience at Old Trafford earlier this season, and Aaron Lenon having a good head-to-head record with Patrice Evra there is plenty for Ferguson to consider.
Will the United manager continue this season’s open, attacking, approach that has brought 56 Premier League goal? With Rooney and van Persie having proven so effective the chances are in the affirmative. Another classic in the offing – put your house on it.
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United – Premier League, White Hart Lane – 4pm 20 January 2013
Spurs (4-4-1-1): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen, Naughton; Lennon , Parker, Dembele, Bale; Dempsey; Defoe. Subs from: Friedel, Assou-Ekotto, Caulker, Huddlestone, Sigurdsson, Townsend, Carroll, Livermore, Falque
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra; Anderson, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Smalling, Büttner, Scholes, Cleverley, Nani, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda, Giggs, Hernández
Referee: C Foy
Assistants: S Beck, M McDonough
Fourth official: L Mason
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Spurs 1, Draw 2
Overall: United 84, Liverpool 46, Draw 47
- Gareth Bale has been a genuine threat again this season, taking 72 shots at goal with 63 per cent on target according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.
- On the opposite flank Aaron Lennon has notched up 28 dribbles this season, placing him fourth in the Index;
- Mousa Dembele has been a real start in his début season with the club, notching up another all-action performance against QPR last week with 5.84 miles covered at Loftus Road;
- In defence Jan Vertonghen is the leading percentage tackler in the Tottenham squad with a 75 per cent success rate from 64 attempted challenges, as well as 27 clearance and 74 interceptions;
- United’s Robin van Persie is again leading the Index this season, with 26 combined goals and assists contributing to the United cause;
- Patrice Evra has discovered a rich vein of goalscoring this season, although Nemanja Vidić was eventually credited with the Frenchman’s goal last week – Evra has also whipped in 35 crosses and is second only to Michael Carrick for passes completed in the opponent’s half with 449;
- Carrick excelled in the victory over Liverpool last weekend and was also the hardest runner on the pitch, covering 6.5 miles;
- Wayne Rooney is down on goals this season, but offers a healthy shot-to-goal ratio of seven and a shot accuracy of 67.3 per cent from 49 attempts.