Manchester United face the biggest test of an unbeaten Premier League season at White Hart Lane, in full knowledge of Tottenham Hotspur’s renaissance. The Londoners’ progression under Harry Redknapp has ensured Spurs remain an outside bet for this season’s title and comfortable qualifiers for the Champions League second round.
Indeed, Spurs’ growth under Redknapp portends a return to the heights the club last experienced in the 1960s, save for the odd cup final. Unlikely winners of the Premier League perhaps but United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson is more than aware of the threat now posed.
“Tottenham are one of the traditionally really good clubs with the proper philosophy of the game,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“You have to look back to 1960-61 under Bill Nicholson, the first club to win the Double in the post-war era, who were an incredible team and had exciting players like Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay. It was an incredible spell. That will always be the standard Spurs have to set for themselves.”
Yet, for all Spurs recent form it is United that remains favourites to land a 19th domestic title, if Ferguson’s team can negotiate trips not only to White Hart Lane, but Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and Anfield before the season is out. Unbeaten but generally poor away from home this season, the Reds will have to improve if Ferguson’s outfit is to maintain its current unbeaten streak.
United’s current run of 25 Premier League matches unbeaten is just four short of the club record top-flight of 29 games achieved in 1998/99.
Yet, much as there is to be admired about Spurs’ style and particularly the lavishly talented midfield Redknapp has assembled very little cost, it is Ferguson’s outfit that has all run-in experience. It’s a fact the Scot tellingly notes with a warning to Sunday’s hosts.
“The bigger challenge is coming up for Spurs: whether they can stand that test of combining the Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League.
“I cannot remember Spurs challenging for the league in my time at United, so that is the change of fortunes under Harry. He’s playing very positively: 4-2-4 in some games.
“He’s certainly having a go. He’s got width. They have some exciting players like Bale, Modric, Van der Vaart and Lennon.
“But the best contribution has without doubt been Bale, who’s got 11 goals, a really good return for a wide player. Bale has tremendous speed and is a great crosser.”
Ferguson has plenty of weapons at his disposal for the trip though, with Wayne Rooney ready to face the Londoners following a fortnight out with an ankle injury. The Scot must decide whether to deploy the Scouser as a lone front-man or retain Dimitar Berbatov for the trip to the Bulgarian’s former club.
Perhaps more radical – perhaps even probable – Ferguson could push Rooney to the left-wing slot the striker fulfilled at Birmingham City in December.
Captain Nemanja Vidic should make the trip after missing the FA Cup tie with Liverpool last weekend, while Edwin van der Sar will return in goal following an illness that kept the Dutchman on the sidelines for a fortnight.
However, it is potentially Rafael da Silva, United’s young Brazilian right-back, who might be key at the Lane, with Bale so dangerous this season. Ferguson admitted that United did bid for the Welshman four years ago, with no success. The Reds loss perhaps, but an even contest given the Rafael’s rapid progression.
“His form this season has been absolutely brilliant,” said Ferguson.
“He’s only 20, just a young boy. But he has learned. His concentration levels have improved. The thing about Rafael is that he’s not making any rash decisions.
“He was quite an impulsive young boy last season. The game against AC Milan away, for instance, he over-ran the ball in the middle of the pitch, they got their second goal and made a game of it. In the second leg against Bayern Munich he had a slight tug on the player and got sent off.
“You don’t expect young defenders to be consistent but he has been this season, really consistent.”
Meanwhile, Redknapp can boast an almost fully fit squad, with only Tom Huddlestone and Ledley Kind missing from the 63-year-old Londoner’s squad for United’s visit. He’ll need it, with Spurs having failed to beat the Reds in a decade.
Tottenham has failed to win any of the last 23 meetings with United in all competitions. Typical of the Londoners’ poor record against United – Spurs beat United 3-1 on the final day of the 2000/01 season; United had already wrapped up the title by more than 10 points.
However, there will be no David Beckham in Redknapp’s team despite Spurs’ attempt to sign the former United midfielder on loan. LA Galaxy and Tottenham have failed to agree terms for the loan and Beckham is likely to return to the US in March.
Spurs – 4411 – Gomes; Hutton, Dawson, Gallas, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Jenas, Bale; Van der Vaart; Defoe. Subs from: Pletikosa, Pavlyuchenko, Palacios, Bassong, Corluka, Keane, Kranjcar, Crouch, Giovani, Kaboul, Sandro.
United – 433 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs; Nani, Berbatov, Rooney. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Evans, Fabio da Silva, Brown, Smalling, Carrick, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Obertan, Hernández, Obertan.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant referees: Stephen Child & Simon Long
Fourth official: Andre Marriner
Spurs – DDWWWL
United – WWDWWW