It’s a funny old game is football, full of omens, curses and clichés. No sooner had Tottenham got one monkey off their back by beating Arsenal for the first time in nine years, they turned their attention to ending a winless run at Old Trafford that stretches back more than twice as long. 1989 was the last time Spurs collected a win at Manchester Utd, their side that day featured the likes of Gary Lineker & Paul Gascoigne. Incredible eh? But United were in no mood to follow in Arsenal’s footsteps, even after falling behind to Robbie Keane’s first half strike. Cristiano Ronaldo took his frightening goal tally to 25 in 27 games this season, and Juande Ramos’ incredible cup run came to an end after three unforgettable years at Sevilla and, already at, Spurs.
The absence of Ledley King, unable to manage three games in a week at this stage, was always going to cause problems in a Spurs defence already minus Gareth Bale, Younes Kaboul & Pascal Chimbonda, so young midfielder Jamie O’Hara, one of Ramos’ success stories so far, was charged with the task of stopping the unstoppable Ronaldo, whilst Tom Huddlestone dropped back to centre half alongside Michael Dawson. United named an almost full strength side, with Paul Scholes named in the squad for the first time since October. It may have lacked the romance of Liverpool against Havant & Waterlooville, but this was the best contested tie of the round by some distance.
The pace from the off was frenetic, Spurs had their tails up following their crushing of United’s main title rivals in midweek, whilst United are in a pretty rich vein of form themselves. It was the visitors who started the more threatening, Dimitar Berbatov heading Aaron Lennon’s corner goalwards, but Wayne Rooney showed his defensive worth with a goal-line clearance.
It was only a temporary reprieve for the league leaders though, as in the 24th minute Dawson’s driven pass found Lennon, who made his way into the box to whip in a teasing low cross between defenders and Edwin Van der Sar for Robbie Keane to volley in from close range. In truth it was no more than they deserved, but the goal stirred United into life. Ryan Giggs forced Radek Cerny into a good save with a fierce left footed strike from 18 yards, and they were level seven minutes before the break as Dawson made a mess of a long ball from John O’Shea, heading the ball straight up into the air, allowing Giggs to hold off Lee Young-Pyo to tee up Carlos Tevez, whose crisp left foot shot flew past Cerny and into his bottom left hand corner.
Spurs regrouped, and could well have been back in front before the break, Steed Malbranque produced a fine pass to open up the United defence and find Jermaine Jenas’ lung busting run from midfield, but Van der Sar managed to get his hand to the midfielder’s low strike, and turn it round the post with Berbatov waiting for anything pushed back into the danger zone.
After the break the pace rarely fell, and it was still Spurs who were creating the better chances. A quick counter attack down the right saw Lennon leave Patrice Evra on the ground, but the winger’s attempted cross for Keane at the back post was sliced awkwardly, and landed on the top of the net. O’Hara was next to go close, curling a left footed free kick just wide from 25 yards, before Keane played in Jenas for his second big chance of the match, but his side-footed effort was dreadfully off target.
You got the sense it could prove a big miss, and so it turned out as United began to click into gear, Ronaldo had already driven into the side-netting after a fantastic pass from Tevez had put him clear, before a long punt upfield by Van der Sar caught Dawson unawares, and the defender was forced to handle in the box as Rooney looked certain to score. It was a moment of madness from the former Forest man, and his misery was compounded when he was shown the red card, and Ronaldo stepped up to ruthlessly drill the penalty home low to Cerny’s right.
Juande Ramos’ was forced to stick Teemu Tainio in at centre half alongside the impressive Huddlestone, and Spurs were forced to weather a slight storm as substitute Scholes drilled a trademark 25 yarder not far wide of Cerny’s right hand post. They responded well however, and almost grabbed an equaliser as Malbranque’s deft chip into the box flicked off the outside of Wes Brown’s right boot, and smacked against the upright. It proved to be their last chance, as Giggs fed Ronaldo on the left, and he cut inside young sub Chris Gunter before drilling a right foot shot from the edge of the box that clipped off Huddlestone and flew under Cerny for the clincher.
It was harsh on Spurs, who came and had a very good go, but the aberration from Dawson proved to be the decisive moment, and Spurs must wait until at least next season before they can get the last of their “Big Three” monkeys off their backs.