MANCHESTER // Nine minutes remained in the game between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League’s second and third placed teams. United had won all four of their home league games so far this season, Spurs all four of theirs away. Something had to give, but on a grey Mancunian day of swirling rain which dampened fans sitting 30 rows back from the pitch, nothing was giving.
United appeared to be heading for a third consecutive league game without a win. A third disappointing, scrappy match which continued to deflate supporters’ expectations. Jose Mourinho's side had started well, with his three-man defence pushing up as his team attacked. Ashley Young and Romelu Lukaku crossed into the box, but United’s forwards weren’t around to finish.
Tottenham, who had lost 20 of their previous 25 games at Old Trafford, improved, with Moussa Sissoko so surprised that a 27th minute chance fell to him that didn't have time to compose himself before shooting over David de Gea's goal. Delle Alli came close to losing his head, but in Eric Dier and Heung-min Son, they had effective players helping make up for the absence of top scorer Harry Kane.
“You are going to miss your main striker, one of the best in the world,” said his manager, Mauricio Pochettino. “But we can’t have that as an excuse today.”
United’s own absences of Paul Pogba and Marouanne Fellaini were felt, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan was initially anonymous.
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After fading in the first half, United came out stronger in the second. Mkhitaryan set up two chances, but the attackers of both sides disappointed while the defences didn’t, especially United’s Phil Jones. Young excelled on the left, too, while on the right Antonio Valencia saw a shot brilliantly blocked by Dier.
The Stretford End began singing for substitute Anthony Martial. They got their wish as the Frenchman came on for Marcus Rashford with 21 minutes remaining. There was disquiet from some fans that the young Mancunian was taken off.
“The same position as Rashford,” instructed Mourinho. “And getting between the lines.”
Alli flicked a sublime 76th minute Christian Eriksen pass wide of De Gea’s goal as the visitors enjoyed more possession, then Lukaku headed against Hugo Lloris’s post two minutes later.
With nine minutes remaining, De Gea punted a long ball forward, Lukaku flicked it towards Martial, splitting the Spurs defence. Martial hasn’t scored in three league starts but had scored three times after coming off the bench. He moved clear from Dier and hit a shot into the ground and into the Tottenham goal.
Old Trafford came alive. “Twenty times Man United,” chimed the home fans to remind the vocal Spurs fans of their record number of league titles. “Have you ever seen Tottenham win the league?”
They were soon singing about being fine, when ten minutes before the end they weren’t. One goal changed everything, the 10th time that United had scored in the last 10 minutes of a league game this season and the third time in succession that United have been Spurs 1-0 at Old Trafford. Tottenham have been vastly superior in recent games against United at White Hart Lane.
United have won five from five at home this season without conceding a goal. The rain didn’t stop all afternoon, but the clouds that had gathered after one point from their previous two games have cleared.
“I like a lot the performance,” said Mourinho, who put his finger across his mouth at the end of the game as if to silence his critics. “The players gave everything with every ball like the most important of their career. And we can’t forget the quality of the opposition. We beat a very, very good team.”
“We’re disappointed,” Pochettino said. “Very painful for our players. It was an even match for our players but that is football and I feel very proud of the effort.”