Opportunity passes United by

 

MANCHESTER UNITED's opportunity to apply further pressure on Premiership leaders Newcastle passed them by last night as Tottenham exposed their deficiencies in a crushing 4-1 defeat at White Hart Lane. The gap at the top remains at four points, with Newcastle enjoying the added advantage of two games in hand.

Big prizes require brave gambles, but Alex Ferguson hazarded far too much on Peter Schmeichel's suspect fitness. The Danish goalkeeper injured his calf in the warmup, but insisted on playing. By the time United admitted their mistake at half time and sent on Kevin Pilkington, who was not even among their original list of substitutes, the game was all but lost.

When Chris Armstrong dived in three minutes after the break, the cheers for their first defeat at Tottenham for six years could be heard all the way to Tyneside. If Kevin Keegan's side can now beat Arsenal, at St Jarnes' Park tonight, they will again be seven points ahead from this roller coaster festive programme which began with their own defeat at Old Trafford.

United literally had no defence for this crushing setback, with Denis Irwin joining Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister on the Old Trafford casualty list. French trialist William Prunier and the young Neville brothers thought they had blunted the best a threadbare Tottenham without six regulars had to offer with Teddy Sheringham hitting the post after five minutes and Chris Armstrong the bar soon after. Eric Cantona had a header blocked on the line by Just in Edinburgh and Philip Neville bulged the side netting as United got the measure of the challenge.

But then their defence suffered a disaster in the 35th minute when Dean Austin curled his cross between two red shirts for Sheringham 10 yards out. Though the ball bobbled awkwardly, he stabbed it past Schmeichel for his 14th goal of the season.

While Tottenham were still celebrating, United raced down the other end where Andy Cole confirmed his return to form by scoring for the fourth consecutive game, a simple right foot tap in from Philip Neville's low, left wing cross which had just eluded Cantona.

In the dying seconds of the half, Tottenham regained the initiative with Sol Campbell's first league goal since he scored on his debut in December 1992. Austin hoisted another cross from the right which Sheringham knocked back to the edge of the area and Campbell cracked an unstoppable right foot volley deep into Schmeichel's left hand corner.

Pilkington could do no better as United's night went from bad to worse. Darren Caskey's cross from the left was headed back across goal by Rosenthal and Armstrong dived in low to head in only his second goal in eight games.

United were far from finished, Walker saving at point blank range from Roy Keane, while from the corner Rosenthal cleared off the line from Butt and Walker made a fantastic reaction save from Cantona.

But Pilkington had little protection and was all over in the 66th minute when Armstrong headed his 10th goal since his £4.5 million move from Crystal Palace. He and Sheringham exchanged passes, with the England striker crossing from the right for his lithe partner to steer a precision header from 10 yards past Pilkington.

Immediately United brought on Lee Sharpe and Brian McClair for Phil Neville and Keane, and Cole was a shade unlucky to have a goal disallowed for dangerous play after he had brilliantly hooked the ball in with a close range overhead shot.

William Hill make Newcastle 1-3 favourites for the Premiership, with Manchester United 4-1 and Liverpool 9-2. Tottenham's odds have been cut from 66-1 to 40-1 following their 4-1 win over Manchester United.