This was a return to the Theatre of Dreams that Jose Mourinho will not have wanted to imagine but one that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have fantasised about. Mourinho’s re-appearance, a year to the month he was dismissed by Manchester United, ended in defeat as Tottenham Hotspur lost for the first time since he was appointed. The Humble One did not expect to be humbled and although he remained restrained throughout how he will have dreamt of getting one over the club that felt he was not that special any more.
There would be no knee slide, no fist pump, no tapping of his chest for Mourinho as he watched Marcus Rashford inspire United to victory and in doing so went a long way towards relieving the mounting pressure on Solskjaer in what feels like a defining week for him ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby. United also had the bonus of going above Spurs in the Premier League table.
For Solskjaer this was the sweetest of evenings, the most satisfying of the season so far, one of the best he has felt in the past 12 months, as he will have been acutely aware of the headlines and analysis if he had been schooled by Mourinho who remained relatively subdued throughout as did his team, apart from one gifted moment from Dele Alli.
Mourinho will have visualised the long walk from the tunnel to the dug-outs prior to kick off and he took his time, he appeared a little nervous even, with a wink and a wave as he then waited for Solskjaer before embracing the one who replaced him. In truth it was all a little subdued but Mourinho was soon striding more purposefully when Tottenham fell behind as they, for the fourth time in the four games under him, failed to keep a clean sheet. Little over six minutes had elapsed when Jesse Lingard ran down a pass forward from Fred, was challenged by Davinson Sanchez with the ball breaking to Marcus Rashford who struck a powerful, instinctive right-foot shot that caught out Paulo Gazzaniga with the goalkeeper palming it in off his near post.
Soon there was injury added to that early insult for Mourinho with Harry Winks diving in to bring down Daniel James by the touchline and the United winger whacking his head on the shin of the Spurs head coach. It looked painful for both of them with Winks booked.
Free-kicks were exchanged. Harry Kane curled one over for Spurs; Rashford went closer for United and the Stretford End was buoyed with a song for Solskjaer. It was frantic and it was, frankly, long ball for a while from both sides with the midfields by-passed until United took control and constructed a move down their right with James crossing low, Lingard teeing up Mason Greenwood and the teenager’s low shot well-saved by Gazzaniga with his legs, especially as he could only have seen the ball late.
It lit the touch-paper. United went even closer and again it was Rashford as he received the ball 30 yards out and struck a powerful, dipping shot that Gazzaniga superbly tipped onto his cross-bar before it cannoned away. The forward was on fire. Again he threatened, this time inside the Spurs area, as he attempted to bend the ball around Gazzaniga with the Argentinian pushing it away.
Mourinho called for calm. Spurs were panicking, their midfield absent and over-run, dominated by the returning Scott McTominay, and his team in danger of being overwhelmed by the Rashford-inspired onslaught.
The presence of Mourinho certainly appeared to have inspired United into what was probably their best opening half hour of the season. Inevitably it did not last with Dele Alli again making the difference for Spurs as he claimed another goal. It came as Moussa Sissiko’s volley was brilliantly beaten out by David De Gea but Fred was far from brilliant as the ball looped high in the air with Alli proving too strong and too skilful for him as he took it down deftly to thrash a cross-shot, on the half-volley, into the net. What an expert, accomplished strike and one that was all of Alli’s clever making.
How would United respond? The answer was magnificently or rather magnificently through the irrepressible Rashford who, early in the second-half, nut-megged Serge Aurier and ran at Sissoko inside the Spurs area with the midfielder panicking – as is his wont – and bringing him down. The penalty was given and Rashford, despite missing four of his last six spot-kicks, calmly sent Gazzaniga the wrong way to restore United’s lead.
United crowded around Son Heung-Min inside their area as he attempted to make space for a shot with the ball eventually blocked while whenever Rashford had possession there was that collective air of expectation that he would create something. He was in that groove with Mourinho again turning to Christian Eriksen, recognising there was a need for more creativity and there was a smattering of boos for him given he had turned down a move to United last summer.
Twice James went close, forcing Gazzaniga into matching saves as he pushed away curling shots from the edge of the area that threatened to beat him. Spurs struggled to threaten. If anything United, for once, appeared relatively comfortable and more likely to score until Aurier was picked out but wrongly elected to shoot rather than pick out Kane.
Solskjaer decided to hold. His substitutions were defensive and inevitably they invited Spurs to attack with Alli forcing De Gea into a sharp save. Was that a risk in itself? Being front-foot and aggressive had worked and as the board went up to show four minutes of added time the home fans rallied. The finishing line was in sight. United made it.