Devilish Solskjær deals fiendish blow to Spurs’ Champions League hopes

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Louise Taylor
·4-min read
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<span>Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

José or Ole? Who would you choose as a nextdoor neighbour? Granted, appearances can deceive, but surely there’s an obvious winner.

Who wants moody, mercurial, narcissistic and, frankly, a bit needy when you could have reassuringly dependable, unfailingly nice and warmly collegiate? Yet if Ole Gunnar Solskjær seems an infinitely better bet to present a consistently friendly face over the garden fence, the Manchester United’s manager’s technical area input also compared pretty well to that of his Old Trafford predecessor, José Mourinho, on Sunday.

As litmus tests go, United’s visit to Mourinho’s Tottenham was more than merely intriguing.

Related: Mason Greenwood seals Manchester United’s comeback at Tottenham

Solskjær keeps his ego well disguised but he will have been desperate to atone for the humiliation last October when Spurs won 6-1 at Old Trafford.

It was a result the Norwegian describes as the “worst moment” of his career but, since then, the United manager’s holistic approach has captured the hearts and minds of not only Paul Pogba and on-pitch company but, critically, the Old Trafford board.

While Mourinho was busy sparking creative tensions and indulging in divide and rule at Spurs, United’s hard-won harmony – not to mention Bruno Fernandes’s brilliance, Pogba’s renaissance and a clever counterattacking style – prompted quietly radical improvement. Solskjær’s side have risen from that nadir of 16th six months ago to second, still inferior to Manchester City but 14 points clear of seventh-placed Spurs.

For much of the first half, though, an uninitiated viewer might have assumed the teams were level on points in mid-table. The tempo was low, the play often reactive, Pogba and Marcus Rashford kept swapping flanks to little effect and it all seemed a bit anticlimactic.

Then, in a blur of wonderful movement, Pogba and Edinson Cavani combined for the latter to score. Except he didn’t because it was disallowed after Scott McTominay’s arm fleetingly caught Son Heung-min in the preamble. If it was accidental, as it certainly seemed, the goal surely had to stand? And if not McTominay, already booked, had to be sent off? As United turned tetchy and Cavani threatened to throw his toys out of the pram, Harry Kane cut the chaos, raising the tone courtesy of a gloriously half-volleyed pass which helped preface Son’s opener.

Heading down the tunnel at the interval Solskjær looked seething as he exchanged views with Mourinho. Yet United’s super-sub manager did not score 126 goals in 366 games for the club by losing control of his emotions or being anything less than analytically, ruthlessly calculating and, sure enough, he did not allow a VAR controversy or personal rivalry to intrude on his logic for long.

Cold objectivity evidently kicked in before the dressing room was reached and the half-time homily issued.

A study in disciplined aggression, an indignant yet incisive United re-emerged in tempo-raising mode with Pogba, Cavani and Fernandes excelling. Tottenham were forced into defensive retreat but whichever backline Mourinho selects – and he has picked 16 different combinations this season – they are not strong enough to sit deep and hold on for slender victory and Fred soon equalised.

By now it had morphed into a compelling contest. Chances came and went, the duel between England’s two Harrys, Kane and Maguire, formed an absorbing subplot and Cavani’s diving header to make it 2-1 was, like Fernandes’s sublime deception of Sergio Reguilón in the buildup, exquisite.

As the excellent substitute Mason Greenwood’s stoppage‑time goal flew in, Solskjær had both revenge and a deserved prize for channelling United’s anger in such devastatingly effective fashion.

Coincidentally, it is almost exactly 23 years since he executed one of the most cynical professional fouls in Premier League history, ensuring United earned a point against Newcastle, hacking down Rob Lee as the midfielder seemed certain to score the winning goal. “I could be a devil,” he recalled. “If I needed to hit someone’s ankle I’d hit it hard.”

On Sunday he and his team dealt Mourinho a blow so devastating no one will be remotely surprised if Spurs fail to qualify for a Champions League they look ill-equipped for, the Portuguese is sacked this summer and Kane moves on, possibly to Old Trafford.