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Tottenham Hotspur failed to hold on after going ahead as Manchester United came from behind to win. At a time when each day feels like the last, here was a result packed with some all too familiar tropes of the 2020/21 season. Even the momentary injustice of a VAR call.
It was not a call that would have any real bearing on the game. Edinson Cavani’s goal when it eventually came would be the winning one on 79 minutes rather than the opener on 33: a diving header at the back post for 2-1 amid a brilliant second-half display from United.
Son Heung-Min, adjudged to be fouled by Scott McTominay’s stray arm in the build-up to Cavani’s ruled-out strike, put Spurs ahead, as the hosts went into half-time with a 1-0 lead.
But they were uncomfortably second-best in the next period that saw Fred make it 1-1, Cavani notch the second and then Mason Greenwood add the cherry on top in the sixth minute of added time for a 3-1 win. That’s now 28 points won by United from losing positions to Spurs’ 18 dropped from winning ones.
Victory could have moved Spurs into sixth, above Liverpool on goal difference and back within a shout of the top four. Now they remain seventh, six points off Champions League football, with the queries over Jose Mourinho tenure as coach, along with Harry Kane’s future at the club, ticking up a notch.
The 6-1 earlier in the season felt like it was played out by two different teams. Spurs, then, were at their rampant best, in the early stages of a league run that took them top. United a defensive mess that suggested an irredeemable rot requiring wholesale changes, including in the dugout.
The turnarounds for both has been quite profound, reflected best in league positions of seventh and second at the time of kick-off. But the reasons for the respective shifts led to an opening half-hour that will hopefully not live long in the memory. Spurs flat, United devoid of ambition.
As such, the 10 minutes that followed was a shock to the system, turning from cold and stale to hot and sweaty in two incidents. Son was at the centre of both.
Scott McTominay’s extended right hand to graze the South Korean’s face. Enough to cause Son the sort of discomfort that had him falling to the floor, where he remained for the next five minutes? Probably enough. But referee Chris Kavanagh saw enough at the VAR pitch side monitor to rule out Edinson Cavani’s finish after a perfectly-weighted through ball from Paul Pogba.
The United players and their bench were enraged and clearly unsettled once the game restarted. On 40 minutes, Spurs had their lead, though the quality of the goal was one that would have flummoxed clear minds.
Tanguy Ndombele’s threaded pass into Harry Kane was diverted first-time around the corner and beyond centre-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Lucas Moura, who had peeled off instinctively, laid the ball across to Son who finished first time to equal his Premier League best of 14 goals from the 2016/17 season.
With a multiplied sense of injustice, United’s response after the break was as pleasing to the neutral as it was to their supporters. Snappier and more proactive build-up, they finally gave Spurs something to worry about. And the best example of this threat came was the equaliser 12 minutes after the break.
A succession of one-twos from Fred, featuring Bruno Fernandes and then Marcus Rashford, led to the Brazilian putting Cavani in again. The Uruguayan’s shot was saved by Lloris into the path of Fred, who had continued on his way to finish things off for the midfielder’s first league goal since September 2018.
From there, United looked the most likely to take all three points. Lloris saved well low to his left from a Fernandes drive from outside the box, before the Frenchman was stranded when Pogba’s attempted flick found nothing but air when the ball was in his possession just five yards out.
And yet, even as Spurs threatened with the odd attack in transition, including a couple of sighters for Kane, there felt a greater purpose in the way United were going about their business. It was as if the pitch was on an incline and those in red were attacking downhill.
With 11 minutes to go, the goal their efforts deserved arrived, in a similarly slick fashion to the two that came before it. Patient build-up on the right-hand side of the Spurs half kicked up a gear as Fernandes nutmegged Reguilon, putting the ball into the path of Greenwood, who had replaced Rashford moments earlier. A first-time cross found Cavani lurking and alert at the back post.
It says all you need to know of Spurs’s efforts to claw back a point that Cavani came closest to doing so for them. A corner from the United right was flicked onto the far post by the 34-year-old. Beyond the odd high ball in hope, United had little to worry about. And it was fitting that they had the final say, Greenwood on the end of an overload in the 96th minute, cutting onto his right foot and firing through Lloris to confirm dominance and, ultimately, an 18th win of the season.
The deficit behind Manchester City is 11 points with a game in hand. With seven games to play, it’s unlikely United can add some jeopardy to this title race. But the fact that even needs saying shows just how far they have come.