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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in action against Tottenham on 2 December 1998

#Treble99: The trophy that eluded United

Manchester United’s bid for a clean sweep of major honours in 1998/99 came unstuck on this day 20 years ago, when George Graham’s Tottenham Hotspur gradually overpowered a rejigged Reds side to book a berth in the League Cup semi-finals.

While Spurs viewed the tie as a glaring opportunity to march back towards European football, Alex Ferguson – as promised – used the trip to blood youngsters and afford invaluable playing time to players on the first-team fringes. That included Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, Nicky Butt, Ronny Johnsen, Henning Berg and Ryan Giggs, who was returning from a broken foot, while David Beckham and Jesper Blomqvist were on the bench. 

Despite prioritising the Premier League and Champions League, with Aston Villa and Bayern Munich waiting in the following week, the United manager was intent on prolonging a four-lane charge for glory. 

For much of the first period, the two teams were evenly matched. Butt’s low shot was saved by Ian Walker, while fellow central midfielder Phil Neville drove off-target from an awkward position after Giggs’s superb through-ball. For all Spurs’ bluster and the encouragement of a baying home crowd, it was the Reds who shaded the first 45 minutes.
Teddy Sheringham celebrates after scoring against his former club Tottenham
Teddy Sheringham scored for United that night but a League Cup defeat could not be prevented.
After the break, Spurs landed a quick one-two which sent the Reds reeling. 

Three minutes into the second half, Allan Nielsen’s centre was flicked on by the diminutive Ruel Fox, and Chris Armstrong’s precise header arced over Raimond van der Gouw, sending White Hart Lane wild. Spurs were virtually out of sight seven minutes later as Armstrong headed in his second goal of the game, racing to the near post to power home David Ginola’s cross. 

Regardless of the sharpness and experience of the personnel on show, the Reds remained unfamiliar with the concept of a lost cause. Solskjaer and Butt came close to finding a route back into the tie, before a beautifully worked move culminated in Neville crossing for Sheringham to deftly head home against his former club. United applied plenty more pressure, but few chances arose. 

The game was settled when Ginola, scattering his brilliance sporadically about the evening, fashioned space and thundered a 25-yard cracker past van der Gouw with five minutes remaining. Spurs were immediately installed as competition favourites, a status validated when they later overcame Leicester City in the final at Wembley to win the trophy. 

Contemplating his side’s exit, Alex Ferguson was rueful.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think the scoreline reflected the balance of play. We played some good football and once we’d scored we should have done better with the chances we had.” 

Yet, as The Independent’s Glenn Moore noted, presciently: “While Spurs dream of Wembley, United can concentrate on every other competition.”

MATCH DETAILS

Tottenham Hotspur: Walker; Carr, Calderwood (Fox h-t), Campbell, Young; Anderton, Nielsen, Sinton, Ginola; Iversen, Armstrong (Ferdinand 86).

Subs not used:
Baardsen, Wilson, Clemence

Manchester United: van der Gouw; Clegg, Berg, Johnsen, Curtis (Blomqvist 86); Greening (Beckham 86), Butt (Notman 72), P.Neville, Giggs; Sheringham, Solskjaer.

Subs not used: Culkin, Wallwork

Man of the Match: Henning Berg. A typically classy, ice-cool display alongside compatriot Ronny Johnsen, as the veteran defender made the most of a rare outing, catching the eye particularly with a fabulous last-ditch challenge to deny Allan Nielsen a certain goal.

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