United face Spurs on Sunday in a mouth-watering tie that may have a big impact on the destination of the Premier League trophy. The game throws together some intriguing personal battles and is bound to carry more heat than usual given a certain Bulgarian hitman’s return and of course the appearance of the David Beckham Circus at White Hart Lane.
Spurs are currently enjoying their first season as genuine title contenders for around 20 years. Much is made of the fantastic job that Harry Redknapp has done there and rightly so, as it was not long ago that Spurs were languishing in the relegation zone, their players appearing unmotivated and lacking confidence. Fast forward to today and Spurs are in the last 16 of the Champions League, going through as group winners above holders Inter (albeit a different, more Benitez-esque Inter) and pushing to improve on last season’s 4th place finish. They come into the game in good form, losing just 1 of the last 10, but haven’t beaten United in the last 19 fixtures between the two. United seem to have a quiet confidence going into ties against Spurs which probably emanates from the stat just mentioned, but this is a game that will be anything but easy and United will have to finally hit top form if they are to come away with the three points.
If Tottenham are to justify their own tag of title contenders then this is a must win game for them, simply because they lie 8 points behind United having played a game more. A United victory would create a potential gap of 14 points, which would be too much to ask for any team to pull back, even one possessing the greatest player in the history of association football.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twelve months, you will know I am of course referring to Gareth Bale. The boy wonder has propelled himself from a left back with a cultured left foot to one of world football’s hot properties; okay enough of the over-used clichés, the lad has proved he is one of the Premier League’s most dangerous players. But this is not a team that is built solely around Gareth Bale. Redknapp pulled off the deal of the century (sorry just one more) when he snapped up Rafael Van Der Vaart for a mere £8m from Real Madrid in the summer. The diminutive Dutchman has set the Premier League alight with his almost sexual skills on the ball and his knack of finding the back of the net. His performances this season have not only provided Spurs with a certain fear factor, but also acted as a huge kick in the teeth to other teams in the league who insist on making ‘Football Manager’ inspired signings, paying way over the odds in the process.
The true strength in this Spurs team is not just in these two world class performers. There is undoubted quality throughout the team and even on the bench as Harry Redknapp has indentified the need for strength in depth in order to compete in the Champions League and Premier League simultaneously. So instead of going through each individual in the probable starting 11, I will focus on the key battles that may shape the outcome of Sunday’s clash:
Rafael Vs. Bale
So to get the most obvious battle out the way, the encounter down United’s right side is one that will have many ‘pundits’ in a twist, and cause endless arguments up until last orders tonight. Young Gareth Bale faced one of his most difficult games this season coming up against an even younger Rafael Da Silva at Old Trafford. Rafael proved that he should clearly be Brazil’s #2 ahead of Maicon, who got utterly embarrassed by Bale – twice, when he provided a master-class in dampening Bale’s threat whilst still managing to support United’s attack occasionally. The Brazilian’s sheer enthusiasm and pace enabled him to almost nullify Bale, and gave the Old Trafford faithful another reason to insist that he plays every game at right back from now until his little legs don’t go round fast enough anymore – sorry Gary but it seems your successor has arrived. But we should not forget that Bale is capable of the sublime, and so Rafael will have to be at his very best again to get the better of this man.
Carrick/Fletcher/Anderson/Gibson/Butt Vs. Modric
Predicting Fergie’s midfield is a game I am not willing to play, and so I leave all options open. Whoever does play the more defensive role will more likely come up against Luka Modric, the creative force who often links up play from the back four to Bale and Van Der Vaart brilliantly. No longer the headline maker, Modric has taken a role in the Spurs team that has become one similar to a rare breed of central midfielders, who play in the centre of midfield and attack and defend. But by no means has his influence declined, yes he has taken a deeper role to accommodate Van Der Vaart but has improved his overall game and is one of the first names on the team-sheet for Redknapp. The David Guetta look-a-like is a very clever footballer, who at times can seem impossible to track, reminiscent of a young Paul Scholes, who if unavailable will be a big miss in this technical battle.
Rooney Vs. Gallas
It is reported that both these men have recovered from injuries and could feature in Sunday’s game. I have a feeling that both will start given the presence and big game experience they both possess. Rooney has shown something close to nearing top form in recent weeks, and if he plays in this game I would back him to score. He is United’s main man, and whilst he may not have played particularly well this season, he still seems to bring the best out of other players, similar but at the same time different to how Keano used to do. William Gallas on the other hand has had a slightly more consistent season, and remains another one of ‘Arry’s Bargain Buys. The experienced France international and tantrum thrower has provided Spurs with more solidarity, vital given the injuries suffered to King and Dawson this season. He is still a match for most strikers in the Premier League, but this will be a tussle that Rooney will surely fancy his chances of winning. Fergie may or may not play Dimitar Berbatov alongside him; or even on his own; or even as part of a front three; let’s face it nobody knows except maybe Mike Phelan but we can be sure that if he does play he will be doing his utmost to come back and haunt Spurs after their relationship broke-down. I believe Fergie will find it too hard to leave either of them out of this game, and may go with the unusual 4-4-2 formation away from home.
After all of what I have said about the potential for a classic game, Sunday’s match could quite well be a dull affair in which Sir Alex and Harry play the cautious card and go for the 1-0. Let’s hope this is not the case.
Spurs: Gomes; Hutton, Dawson, Gallas, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Palacios, Bale, Van der Vaart, Defoe