“Get the f—–g line up,” Eric Dier presciently implored his Tottenham teammates. Moments later, Spurs were too deep for Mason Greenwood’s instinctive cross that Edinson Cavani clinically converted.
Cavani slid on his knees towards the corner and, somehow, the Manchester United substitutes resisted mobbing him. The outfield players soon took care of that. After Greenwood got in on the act in added time, Cavani turned to his teammates on the sidelines and they celebrated, with victory assured.
Cavani suffered the ignominy of Jesse Lingard outscoring him in the Premier League despite not playing in the competition until February. Salt was poured into that wound with a disallowed goal in the first-half and for the rest of his afternoon in North London he was the prototype of the long-term striker United crave.
There was a harsh booking for a tangle with Joe Rodon, Hugo Lloris denied him twice and Rodon thwarted a certain goal. No other striker on United’s books has the expertise to read Greenwood’s inswinger, manna of heaven for a goalscorer of Cavani’s credentials.
If he is to bid goodbye to United after seven months – and that is still likely – this was a memorable farewell gift. Top four is a certainty and second seems so, too, highlighting the ‘clear progress’ Ed Woodward sees.
This was one of United’s halves of the season, the United that is still mathematically able to supplant City in the Premier League table, not the passengers that meandered through the first 45 minutes. The prospect of somehow reeling in City is almost as fanciful as Liverpool retaining the title but this is a run-in for United to lay down a marker. They have matched Arsenal’s 23-game away unbeaten run in the Premier League.
Paul Pogba, the catalyst in the creditable draw against Spurs last June, grabbed the game by the lapels and roamed relentlessly. Any progress United make between now and May is possibly compromised by Pogba’s own intentions in the summer and, when gracing the same stadium as Jose Mourinho, he is indisputably their finest footballer.
The Spurs coaching staff are understood to have surmised that Pogba would start from the left, such is Solskjaer’s faith in the Scott McTominay-Fred axis, as well as McTomimay’s suspension for the return leg with Granada on Thursday. Whatever the bespoke tactics, it did not fit and Pogba was United’s most creative player, dexterously demonstrated by his crafty pass through Pierre-Emile Hojberg’s legs for Cavani. Pogba’s position is now a moot point.
Greenwood and Dean Henderson flew the academy flag, the latter reasserting his status as the United No.1 with crucial saves with the game deadlocked and the former decisive. Mourinho gave Greenwood his first first-team experience in the 2018 tour aged 16, replete with the squad number 54. Five plus four equals nine but Greenwood was as dynamic as a 10.
At one stage during the first-half, laughter could be heard echoing around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium’s surround sound. It could easily have been the Video Assistant Referee.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had warned United not to be ‘conned’ by Tottenham’s gamesmanship and if they weren’t then the referee Chris Kavanagh arguably was. McTominay grazed Son Heung-min with his fingertips and that contact was deemed sufficient enough for a retrospective foul that chalked off Cavani’s poached strike.
The VAR – Craig Pawson – reportedly advised Kavanagh it was ‘accidental’, according to the Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler. McTominay only appeared to hold off Son as the Korean had tugged at his arm. The United players, euphoric following the celebrations, were affronted by the very possibility there had been a foul. Son received treatment but no sympathy. Gallingly for United, Son struck the opening goal that counted four minutes later.
In the VAR era, the on-pitch players have access to the replays without having to impatiently wait to return to the dressing room. The aggrieved Harry Maguire shadowed Kavanagh as he consulted the pitchside monitor and pointlessly confronted him at half-time. He did not need an earpiece broadcasting Tyler’s commentary to realise it was a dubious decision.
The bigger picture was United were in their armchairs in the first-half, Leicester’s lunchtime defeat at West Ham safeguarding second place. Marcus Rashford was relocated and Fred recalled, risk-aversive calls that Solskjaer harboured regrets about, as Greenwood’s warm-up coincided with the restart. Their ill-discipline resulted in five yellow cards for the second match running.
Fred’s shooting usually finds row Z yet he put the ball between the posts to spark the comeback with what was his first Premier League goal since his last and only one in September 2018. Fred had attempted 73 shots in the league between his goals and a fair few would have injured spectators.
Switching Rashford from his favoured role, having scored two in his last two games, was a counter-productive move against the loosest defence Mourinho has managed since he went mainstream. Rashford, unable to complete 90 minutes, took longer to do a half-lap and take his seat than it takes to boil an egg. He cannot start against Granada.
Mourinho was convivial with Solskjaer and the United backroom staff prior to kick-off, fist-bumping David de Gea, reserving a hug for his ‘son’, Nemanja Matic and offering Juan Mata a sympathetic embrace following the passing of his mother. He was a different beast after the first shrill, demanding a second yellow card for McTominay, once the apple of his eye. Mourinho threw his arms around McTominay at full-time.
Tottenham trounced United in October by targeting their full-backs and Solskjaer countered that by instructing Wan-Bsissaka to press high on Son while Henderson, the defence’s new orchestra, brazenly hollered coach Kieran McKenna’s name to address Wan-Bissaka’s positioning. Peter Schmeichel was maybe never that dictatorial.
Maguire encountered Reguilon during United’s heated Europa League semi-final with Sevilla in August and that seemed to inform his rebuke of the Spaniard, seeking a yellow card: “Hey, Sergio, f–k off.”
The f-word was uttered again at a Spurs player.