LONDON: Tottenham’s latest crushing setback, 3-1 at home to champions Manchester United, raised the awful prospect for their fans that neighbours Arsenal might even overtake them in the closing stages of the pursuit for Champions League places.

Goals from Wayne Rooney after an even first half and Ashley Young – two in nine second-half minutes – underlined a gap in class which still exists between the real title contenders and the mere entertaining pretenders. Jermain Defoe’s late Tottenham consolation was barely even that.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had been back up to his old tricks, playing his ‘mind games’ before the match. Ferguson had remarked that this would he the last time he faced Harry Redknapp since he expected the Spurs boss to be appointed as manager of England later this spring.

Spurs’ recent erratic form has already been blamed on early speculation about Redknapp being approached by the Football Association and Ferguson sought to fuel that fire.

“If I were the Spurs directors I’d be worried about the effect this might have on their season,” said Ferguson. “I remember when I said I was going to retire all the speculation and talk affected our team spirit. The same thing could happen to them.”

On the basis that Tottenham have won only one game in four since Capello quit, Ferguson may be not far off.

Spurs never came to grips with the challenge of regrouping after the previous weekend’s hugely disappointing defeat at Arsenal when they had been 2-0 ahead. They have not beaten United since 2001 and never looked like ending that run.

Admittedly minor injuries ruled out Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart and new England captain Scott Parker was suspended. But Emmanuel Adebayor had a lacklustre time of it in attack and Luka Modric was continually hassled and hurried into inaccuracy in midfield.

Victory meant United remained within two points of leaders Manchester City. Ferguson’s “noisy neighbours” have a far superior goal difference but, intriguingly, the closing fixtures favour United rather than the leaders.

Newcastle United had substitute Shola Ameobi to thank as they snatched a late 1-1 draw in the north-east clash with 10-men Sunderland. He equalised at 1-1 in stoppage time after Demba Ba had seen an 83rd-minute penalty saved by Simon Mignolet.

Nicklas Bendtner had given Suderland an early lead by showing how penalties should be taken. Sunderland not only had Stephane Sessegnon sent off during the match but saw captain Lee Cattermole red-carded after the final whistle for arguing with referee Mike Dean.