Manchester United beat Spurs in their shoot-out to stay in the race for a Champions League place, with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the way.
1) Manchester United and Spurs both went into this match aware of the fact that, for all the stop-start nature of their football over the course of this season, we’re reaching the point at which dropped points can no longer be tolerated if their ambitions are to be realised. Arsenal are the clear favourites to grab the fourth Champions League place; unless there are further unexpected chapters in the story of Chelsea’s season, only one of these three clubs has any realistic chance of playing in the Champions League next season. This match was not far short of a shoot-out to stay in that race.
2) Both Manchester United and Spurs remain in a state of limbo, their futures not entirely certain. Manchester United are no closer to finding a permanent manager for next season than they have been. Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino continue to lead the way in the betting markets, but Pochettino finds himself simultaneously more likely to be available come the end of the season and less likely to appeal to a team harbouring ambitions of winning the Champions League following PSG’s capitulation against Real Madrid a few days earlier. And then, of course, there’s growing speculation that they may even be monitoring the Thomas Tuchel situation at Chelsea.
3) Spurs, meanwhile, may have racked up five goals in their last match, but that came against 11 scarecrows dressed as Everton players and there was a sense that they hadn’t even played particularly well to get that win. But the gloom that had descended with defeats to Southampton, Wolves and Burnley – not to mention against Middlesbrough in the the FA Cup – had been lifted a little by 180 minutes of shooting practice against Leeds and Everton, during which they racked up nine goals and a little much-needed self-confidence.
4) For everything that’s been said about his future at Manchester United, the old dog can still pull a trick or two out upon request. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 12th-minute goal, a swerving 25-yarder from a Fred flick which left Hugo Lloris grasping at thin air, was yet another demonstration of the Ronaldo paradox. United had not been firing on all cylinders of late, and suggestions had been growing that his return may be ending ahead of the end of his contract, but it only took him to be in the right position once to be able to settle those early Old Trafford nerves. It hasn’t been enough to sustain United to the extent that might have happened with a team with a fully-functioning defence throughout the season, but it’s in moments like this you see the reasons why they would want to keep hold of him.
5) One viewer’s exciting end-to-end battle is another viewer’s match rendered open by two leaky and slightly panicky defences. Spurs reacted positively to United’s opening goal, and were probably the better team over the remainder of the first half. They dominated possession, and early commentary talk of how United were getting their ‘arrogance’ back soon quietened as they continued to press forward and the home defence started to buckle in front of them.
6) The one player who has impressed more than any other in the Spurs team over the last six weeks or so has been new signing Dejan Kulusevski. Kulusevski was a menacing presence on the Tottenham right throughout the game, unafraid to run at defenders despite not seeming to have an enormous amount of pace himself, eager to tackle back, and imaginative in his passing. And it was his hard work that brought Spurs level, beating two defenders on the right-hand side with something akin to sheer force of will and then driving the ball against Alex Telles’ arm for a penalty kick, which Harry Kane drilled past David De Gea. It was no less than Spurs’ previous 20 minutes deserved.
7) That Spurs’ parity only lasted for three minutes speaks volumes about the frustrations of their season. When Nemanja Matic released Jadon Sancho on the right-hand side, Sergio Reguilon stepped out half a yard too late and the trap had been sprung. With Tottenham arms still in the air, Sancho hared away and delivered a low cross for Ronaldo to score from close range. It was a second goal that United’s previous first-half performance scarcely deserved, but such lackadaisical defending warranted it.
8) Spurs dominated the first 15 minutes of the second half too, but their ball delivery and decision-making in the final third of the pitch was visibly poor. On three or four occasions, they pinned United back effectively, only for the final pass to fall straight at a United defender’s feet or for the ball to sail safely over the goal and away to safety.
The only clear chances of this period fell to Son Heung Min, who shot wide from 12 yards, but even this most likely came about because the ball into his feet came a few inches behind him, meaning that he couldn’t quite get the angle on his shot that he would have wanted, and to Ronaldo, who managed to wiggle himself into a little space on the right, only to see Lloris beat his shot away. But the quality dipped overall throughout this period from both teams, everything getting a bit scrappy from both teams. Whatever this period of the game may have looked like, it didn’t look much like ‘Champions League’ football.
9) Marcus Rashford continues to underwhelm. He was an anonymous presence in attack for much of his time on the pitch, and his withdrawal to make way for Anthony Elanga midway through the second half was no great surprise. It is worth remembering that the England squad players from last summer’s European Championships didn’t get much of a break last summer and that club form across that entire squad this season has been patchy, but if he is, as has been reported, getting frustrated by his lack of game time and is considering taking his chances elsewhere, then he’s going to have to up his game if he wants to continue playing at this sort of level.
10) We do need to talk about Harry Maguire. It’s not so much that he’s a bad footballer – bear with me, here – it’s more that he has this habit of throwing himself into these unnecessary high-profile disasters. On this occasion, Son released Reguilon on the left-hand side; Cristian Romero had appeared in a dramatically offside position, and had Maguire let Reguilon’s low cross be tapped over the line by Romero it would almost certainly have been called back for offside. It was a quintessential Maguire moment, a momentary ungainliness in which he appeared to forget not only how to defend a low cross, but also the basic rules of how to be a biped. Romero, for his part, took a moment to gurn in Maguire’s face, all of which made what followed seem somewhat inevitable.
11) When Ronaldo’s header cracked into the top corner of the Spurs goal to restore United’s lead for a third and decisive time, the commentary team were very keen to tell us all how he’d ‘proved his doubters wrong’. Well… not quite. No-one ever denied that Ronaldo would score goals for United this season. Those who were sceptical of his transfer wondered whether he would bring a little imbalance into United’s squad, and whether he would be either willing or able to join in the high tempo, pressing game that is commonplace in the Premier League nowadays.
No-one has ever doubted Ronaldo’s ability to improve his personal statistics, but for Manchester United the more important issue this season has been how to improve the club’s statistics, by getting closer to the top of the Premier League to start with, and that simply hasn’t happened. Who knows, perhaps Manchester United will win the Champions League in the style of that extraordinary advert he made a couple of years ago, just like his fever dreams. But it is worth remembering that prior to this match, he’d scored just one Premier League goal in 2022, and it doesn’t seem healthy that United were so dependent on this one player to dig them out of a hole.
12) But the record-breaking and the sense of occasion are genuinely remarkable. He’s now scored 807 career goals, lifting him to fifth in FIFA’s all-time rankings, and it says something for his force of personality that he is able to do this, even occasionally, at 37 years old. The third goal was really a consummation of this self-determination, an almost brutal shoving of Matt Doherty out of the way of the ball, as though by force of will. Romero, the tormentor of Maguire after his own goal, was nowhere to be seen.
And it would be both churlish and fundamentally untrue to say that these occasions when Ronaldo lives out his Roy of the Rovers fantasies in public have no value to Manchester United. Without his presence, United almost certainly would have lost this match; there remains no other player in the Premier League who can spin a match on its head quite like him.
13) United did seem to miss the channelled aggression of Bruno Fernandes in attacking midfield positions. He was laid low by illness. More interesting was the performance of Fred, who was almost unrecognisable as a terrier-like presence in a defensive midfield slot. Fred has become something of a meme over the course of his time at Old Trafford, but it should be recognised when he puts in a truly accomplished performance. Were it not for his hat-trick-grabbing, headline-hogging team-mate, Fred’s would have been a Man of the Match performance. If anyone, he resembled N’Golo Kante in this match, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
14) Spurs are probably right to feel aggrieved at having come away from this match empty-handed. They dominated for long periods, and although United were more successful in holding them at arm’s length in the second half, there were only brief spells when it felt as though United were pinning Spurs back in the same way. If Conte is feeling in a philosophical mood, he may wish to ponder that it is sheer bad luck to be up against Ronaldo when he is having an evening like this. Somehow, it seems unlikely that Conte will see it this way, but his team did put in a creditable performance, even if they left with nothing to show for it.
15) Manchester United remain a curate’s egg, flashes of brilliance mixed with mundanity and occasional moments when individual players seem to forget how to play the game altogether. This result lifts them back into fourth place in the Premier League table, the minimum requirement for the Glazers, as everybody knows, but match postponements earlier in the season give the table a somewhat unreal look. United are in that final Champions League place now, but it still seems unlikely that they will be by the end of this season.
16) It’s entirely possible that Ronaldo’s hat-trick will finally galvanise United, and that rising back to fourth place in the Premier League table will give them a critical psychological push, as the season enters its closing straights. But although United are back in fourth, they only lead Arsenal by two points and Arsenal, who’ve lost just one their last ten Premier League matches, have four games in hand in which they can clamber back above them. It might be that they’ve left it just a little too late for this season, and with big changes coming at Old Trafford during the summer, quite what the future holds for United remains as much of a mystery as it has for much of the time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
But perhaps today wasn’t really about the long game. Ronaldo may be off at the end of this season, or he may stay for the second year of his contract, but days like this are likely to get increasingly rare, so perhaps United supporters are best advised to stop looking nervously at the league table and just wallow in the glow that comes from a 3-2 win with a Ronaldo hat-trick. Moments like this are, after all, ultimately what the game is all about.