LONDON: Manchester United extended their unbeaten run to nine games even though fatigue drained their energy tanks in the closing stages of goalless draw at Tottenham.
Manager Louis Van Gaal thought United’s first half was “fantastic” but attacking failings ultimately let them down.
He said: “We lost two points although it was our best performance of the season in the first half. We could have scored four or five goals. Even when we were on the goalline we couldn’t score.
“The second half was more struggle than football. It was an ugly match. We gave away three chances but we could also have scored three times ourselves.”
United had entered the busy holiday programme with the magic words ‘title challenge’ being whispered for the first time in a long time.
That revival of optimism had been sparked by a run of seven wins in eight games, 22 points out of a possible 24, and awareness that United, unlike City and Chelsea, will not have European competition weighing on fitness and form in the spring.
Not that manager Louis Van Gaal arrived at White Hart Lane in festive mood. A first experience of the condensed English football Christmas was not to his liking.
“I cannot prepare my team [for Tottenham] like I should have to prepare,” he had complained after Friday’s 3:1 win over Newcastle in which captain Wayne Rooney scored two goals and created the other for Robin Van Persie.
“We have team meetings, we have a training session always 11 against 11, simulating the opponent, we cannot do that now because we have to play so soon.
“UEFA and FIFA say it’s forbidden to play within 48 hours but, OK, it’s England . . . though I recognise that it is the same for all the teams.”
United’s main fitness concern centred on Angel Di María who suffered a pelvic injury in training that ruled him out of the Newcastle victory.
His absence did nothing to temper United’s attacking determination. They dominated a goalless first half and had a ‘goal’ disallowed in the 27th minute when Phil Jones was penalised for offside after heading over the line from close range.
United continued with 3-5-2 with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in wide midfield and Michael Carrick as anchor behind Juan Mata and Rooney. Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao started up front. It was the first time United had started the same team in successive matches for 85 games.
Injury saw Valencia replaced by Rafael da Silva for a second half which saw Tottenham raise the pace to force a way back into the game. Andros Townsend forced a diving stop from David De Gea before Mata slashed a shot high at the other end.
Ryan Mason wasted Tottenham’s best chance but a draw was an appropriate result which meant Van Gaal reached the end of the year with United secure in the top four. That is a placing which might have surprised even United fans after the slow, erratic start to United’s season.
Not that Van Gaal was happy.
He said: “I should have been satisfied if we had won because then we would have 38 points out of 19 matches, two points per match, which isn’t bad.”
** One minute’s applause was held before the game in memory of Ron Henry, leftback in Spurs’ historic 1961 league-and-FA-Cup double-winning team, who has died at 80.