Nani’s drive lifts United

Tottenham could have been regarded as the superior team and they had the clearer openings. Coming through to win in mild adversity, though, may turn out to be galvanising for Manchester United, writes Kevin McCarra.

It is hard for any club to believe they are playing for their lives, so early in the English Premiership. Manchester United grappled awkwardly with the idea and each hamfisted moment left them facing a draw that would have had Chelsea holding a seven-point advantage. Nani, with the minimally deflected effort that gave him his first United goal, averted a forbidding prospect.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments in the match programme had given the impression of a person fidgeting anxiously as he conceded that three games without a win had already put the club under “a lot of pressure.” It bore down on them so severely that they must have felt they were on the ocean floor. With a win that puts them 10th in the table they have started to float towards the light.

Tottenham Hotspur could just as easily have been the club moving in the right direction. Their predicament is much greater than that of the Old Trafford club because the disappointments on the field are paired with machinations in the boardroom. The situation is now so convoluted that the official comments on Martin Jol’s situation were a combination of a vote of confidence and final warning.

Whatever else the manager needs, a little luck would be of immediate service. Defeat was harsh on them because they were at least as likely to score as United. The players felt wronged, although there was no miscarriage of justice. In the 66th minute, Robbie Keane played a pass through from the right and Dimitar Berbatov eluded Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar before claiming that Wes Brown had blocked his finish with an arm.

The referee, Howard Webb, ruled correctly that the shot had brushed the defender’s torso. Berbatov, back from injury, had shown yet again how much wider Tottenham’s repertoire is when he is in action. After 64 minutes Gareth Bale, on his debut, sent a pass through the middle and the Bulgaria attacker survived a collision with Vidic. His prodded finish would have reached the net had it not been for the pace of Rio Ferdinand, who booted it off the line.

United had several scrapes. It had been galling for them to produce technically admirable football in three previous matches without making the most of it, but that failing looked as if it would be replaced by an even more serious vice. They were predictable and mostly boring. It was hard for them to get started when the passing of, say, Michael Carrick was prone to sudden error.

Tottenham take credit for that and Keane harried Carrick and Owen Hargreaves as much as he could to prevent United from settling into slickness. The visitors also had endeavour when they went forward. From a Jermaine Jenas corner in the 14th minute, a header from Pascal Chimbonda went wide as Anthony Gardner tried to prod it into the net.

When the fixture was still goalless, Ricardo Rocha had also nodded off target from a Bale set-piece. United were vulnerable even if no damage was to be sustained. Ferdinand was having one of those woozy days that provokes such consternation, Berbatov got a sight of goal because of that and Vidic needed to block the drive in the 20th minute.

Jol’s team had received a fillip within seconds of kick-off as Berbatov put the ball deftly into Keane’s path and his attempt clipped the top of the crossbar. And yet, United were victorious. They will prefer to pretend that this was a siege in which the visitors’ fortifications were steadily damaged.

The 20-year-old Nani had been one of the least likely to end a deadlock. There is a jibe, cruel for one who is at an early stage of his development, that he is a Cristiano Ronaldo wannabe. He did not bring his suspended compatriot to mind very often and whichever wing he tried there was little scope to show his abilities.

The centre was to prove more productive in the 68th minute. Moments after having a shot kicked off the line by Jermaine Jenas, Carlos Tevez scuffled to turn a pass from the substitute Chris Eagles back into Nani’s path. The Portuguese, 25 yards out, got power and movement into his drive but it brushed Tevez’s head and that may have been a factor in preventing Paul Robinson from blocking it. Tottenham could have been regarded as the superior team and they had the clearer openings. Coming through to win in mild adversity, though, may turn out to be galvanising for Ferguson’s squad.


August 26: Manchester United 1 (Nani 68) bt Tottenham 0. Half-time: 0-0; Middlesbrough 2 (Mido 28, Arca 80) drew with Newcastle 2 (N’Zogbia 22, Viduka 77). Half-time: 1-1.

August 25: Arsenal 1 (Fabregas 80) bt Manchester City 0. Half-time: 0-0; Aston Villa 2 (Knight o.g. 51, Maloney 90) bt Fulham 1 (Dempsey 6). Half-time: 0-1; Bolton 3 (Speed 32, Anelka 55, Braaten 90) bt Reading 0. Half-time: 1-0; Chelsea 1 (Lampard 31) bt Portsmouth 0. Half-time: 1-0; Derby 1 (Oakley 51) lost to Birmingham 2 (Jerome 1 & 63). Half-time: 0-1; Everton 1 (McFadden 78) drew with Blackburn 1 (Santa Cruz 15). Half-time: 0-1; Sunderland 0 lost to Liverpool 2 (Sissoko 37, Voronin 87). Half-time: 0-1; West Ham 1 (Bowyer 81) drew with Wigan 1 (Scharner 78). Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007