Before Manchester United FC visited Tottenham Hotspur FC this past weekend, the Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was eager to point out that his team now had players whom his counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson "would love at Old Trafford".
That may be the case with some individuals in a Tottenham side whose free-scoring form in UEFA Champions League Group A (18 goals) contrasted with United's own sparsity of goals in the competition before Christmas – their tally of seven constituting their third-lowest in 16 seasons of group-stage competition. Yet United, in stifling the Londoners in Sunday's goalless draw, underlined the less glamorous qualities of character and resilience that have not only kept them unbeaten in the Premier League this season but also provide a platform for them to launch another assault on the European crown this spring.
Sir Alex hailed his back four as "fantastic" after the White Hart Lane stalemate and it is hard to overstate the importance of the central defensive tandem of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić to the United cause. Vidić, in particular, embodies the grit and determination of a team yet to hit their usual heights as an attacking force but who, according to Monday's Manchester Evening News, have "the ability to get something out of every match in spite of the odds".
Also earning widespread praise this term are Patrice Evra, a model of consistency at left-back, and the young Brazilian right-back, Rafael, who – notwithstanding his red card at Spurs – is developing at a rapid rate. Sir Alex's men emphasised their defensive strength by conceding just once in six games in the group stage – the best record of all 32 clubs (even if their opponents included shot-shy Rangers FC and Bursaspor) and an unprecedented feat of miserliness by a United side in the competition.
Given United's rich footballing tradition, it should be stressed there has been no shift in philosophy from their attack-minded manager; rather his side have had to adapt to altered circumstances. When the Old Trafford team won the UEFA Champions League in 2007/08, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez scored 16 goals between them. The trio hit a combined ten in the group stage alone. The next season – with Dimitar Berbatov added to the mix – the front quartet struck 14 as United returned to the final.
United no longer have Ronaldo and Tévez, and Rooney – their top scorer in 2009/10 – is still seeking his lost spark, with only one goal in open play this term. As a result United's forwards have contributed just three goals between them so far in Europe with one each from Rooney, the largely impressive Berbatov and the hugely promising if inexperienced Javier Hernández.
Sir Alex will hope Rooney may be resembling his old self rather more by the time of next month's visit to Olympique de Marseille in the round of 16, yet the evidence of the first half of a campaign which has brought one defeat in 33 matches is that United could well find a way even without him.
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