By Liam Twomey
A draw that feels like a defeat is still a draw but, as sombre Manchester United players trudged off a snowy White Hart Lane pitch on Sunday, it was a realisation they were surely loathe to make.
Despite a performance which was more substance than style and determination than discipline, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men looked for all the world as if they would leave north London with a vital three points, until Clint Dempsey proved their bane again.
Robin van Persie – who else? – had given them hope against the run of play with a typically clinical first-half header, but Tottenham were well worth their point. United found themselves pinned back for most of the afternoon, and battered for much of a second half in which David De Gea was emerging as an unlikely hero until his wayward parry allowed Aaron Lennon to tee up Dempsey late on.
It was a display which exhibited none of the reckless abandon which has characterised United’s charge to the top of the Premier League this season, looking to nullify their own defensive fragility by outscoring the opposition. Here they were pragmatic, defensive and respectful of Spurs.
Perhaps even a little too respectful. Their total of five shots was the lowest number mustered since that ultimately decisive one-goal thrashing endured at the hands of Manchester City last term. When United came forward they looked predictably dangerous but, unusually wary of their own vulnerabilities, they largely elected to sit back and defend their meagre lot.
Consequently the hosts were dominant, and well worthy of a scoreline which sees them remain in fourth place, while United’s lead over City is cut to five points. It remains a significant gap but it is also, as Sir Alex’s scarred team will remember only too well, infinitely bridgeable.
They found themselves in an even greater position of dominance last season, even without the peerless predator Van Persie. A 2-0 home win over QPR back in April put them eight points clear of a City side which appeared to be in a state of expensively-assembled disarray with just six games to play, and seemingly on the verge of a record 20th league title.
Everyone thought it was over, including – although they would never admit it – many of the United players themselves. But a mixture of complacency and negativity was to prove their downfall.
For as much as Sir Alex insists the title was eventually decided on goal difference, it was a lacklustre defeat away to Wigan, the conceding of four goals at home to Everton, and an unusually passive performance against City, which truly made the difference. In the final reckoning, United lost the title as much as their ‘noisy neighbours’ won it.
It is, of course, far too early to suggest the same will happen again. United have strengthened immeasurably with the addition of the finest attacking talent in the country, and City are still to convince they are capable of another perfect finish.
The fixtures, too, would suggest United are in a stronger position. A year ago, they still had trips to the Emirates Stadium, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane and the Etihad Stadium to negotiate. This time around, there is just the one journey to north London remaining, while the other three expeditions have already yielded seven points from a possible nine.
Yet if Sunday’s last-gasp setback leaves United with anything more than a bitter taste in the mouth, it should be a timely reminder that few teams have the luxury of coasting to the Premier League title. Their run-in may seem relatively kind but, as we have seen on countless occasions, the final few months can throw up all kinds of unexpectedly difficult challenges.
A draw that feels like a defeat is still a draw. But with City still on their tails and the memory of last season’s agony still fresh in their minds, the only safe option for United is to keep winning.
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