David Hytner at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – The Guardian
Bruno Fernandes celebrates scoring his side’s goal with Paul Pogba Photograph: Matt Childs/PA Wire/NMC Pool/PA
The reaction of Eric Dier, the Tottenham defender, said it all. He had just conceded one penalty, which allowed Bruno Fernandes to equalise for Manchester United, and now it appeared that he had conceded another at the very end.
Dier knew that he had not touched Fernandes before the United man went to ground but the referee, Jon Moss, had bought it and pointed to the spot. Dier was flabbergasted. Enter VAR. When the first replay was shown, it was plain that Fernandes had, at best, initiated the contact and, at worst, dived. Dier was reprieved. No penalty. Spurs breathed in collective relief.
Dier had been angry enough about the first one, except this time he had put his hands on Paul Pogba, having been bamboozled by a piece of skill from the Frenchman. Pogba, on as a 62nd-minute substitute, danced past Dier on the byline before feeling the contact and hitting the ground.
When Fernandes converted, it was no more than United deserved for their front-foot football and it added up to a reprieve for David de Gea, their goalkeeper. He looked to have Steven Bergwijn’s first-half shot within his sights, however well struck it was, and then he did not.
When it reared up off De Gea’s hands and into the net, Tottenham had something to defend, something to reignite their season, and Roy Keane, the former United captain, had something to get angry about in the Sky Sports studio. Very angry. The defending from Harry Maguire in the build-up had been loose in the extreme but De Gea was in the line of fire.
It was an absorbing game that built to its climax with United turning the screw after Pogba was introduced with Mason Greenwood. And it was the latter who almost stole all three points with virtually the last kick of the game only to see his low shot fly past the far post. Spurs were on their knees. They narrowly dodged the knock-out that would have blown a hole in their hopes of a Champions League finish.
It was a slow-burning start, with the first chance falling to United on 22 minutes. And it was a chance out of pretty much nothing, created by an aberration from Davinson Sánchez. He sent an attempted clearing header straight at Marcus Rashford, who guided an instinctive half-volley goalwards. Hugo Lloris saved with his feet.
José Mourinho had started Érik Lamela ahead of Tanguy Ndombele – a setback for Spurs’s record signing – but the Argentinian justified the decision, roaming with menace from the No 10 role. Lamela helped to make Spurs dangerous on the quick counter, although the opening goal was all about Bergwijn’s determination.
The January signing collected possession inside the United half after Serge Aurier had beaten Rashford and put his head down, picking up pace and momentum. He ran inside Maguire while the chasing Fred would be blocked off by Lamela. Then came the moment that De Gea will want to forget.
The United goalkeeper made partial amends on 31 minutes when he tipped over a Son Heung-min header after Bergwijn had raided up the right and United were reprieved moments later when Sánchez flicked high after a miscued Dier shot broke for him.
Rashford was central to United’s only other flicker before the interval, although the last touch from a Fred free-kick came not off him but Sanchez. Lloris made a scrambling save.
The contrast in the fortunes of the clubs before shutdown could scarcely have been greater – Spurs winless in six, crashing out of cup competitions; United unbeaten in 11, “moving in the right direction” to quote Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
This was a clean slate, albeit a weird one, perhaps the slickest stadium in England beautifully dressed but lacking soul, failing to communicate the urgency of the occasion.
When everything is stripped away, when the volume is turned down and the only sounds come from the players’ shouts, it is plainly surreal. The positive reading is that it focuses minds on the technical spectacle, on how players at this level have extraordinarily good touches in tight spaces. The lack of time they have to make their decisions is remarkable. Then, there are the shuddering physical challenges. You can really hear them now.
United tried to make the game, hogging possession and Spurs were content to invite them on. Although Harry Kane was rusty up front, there was plenty from Bergwijn, Lamela and Son behind him.
Fernandes fizzed wide from distance early in the second half but United were struggling for penetration until Solskjær made his substitutions and, almost immediately, his team advertised the equaliser.
First, Anthony Martial was denied by a saving Dier challenge following Fernandes’s pass and, moments later, by a wonderful Lloris save. When Martial unloaded with his left foot after Luke Shaw’s pull-back, it looked like a certain goal. Flying through the air, Lloris had other ideas. The drama, however, was only just beginning.