Sir Alex Ferguson's side gave everything in those closing moments but they had left themselves with too much to do after Jan Vertonghen scored inside the first two minutes and Gareth Bale brilliantly doubled the lead before half-time. Wayne Rooney's introduction sparked the home side into life and they pinned their opponents back during a breathless second half, beginning with three goals in as many minutes. Nani and Shinji Kagawa both scored but in between Clint Dempsey registered his first goal for his new club.
Spurs played, quite simply, as though affronted that their record on this ground could be so undistinguished. Bale was superb, his first instinct always to drive forward. Mousa Dembélé excelled again, just as he had when Fulham visited Old Trafford last month, reminding Ferguson of the talents that had seen United bid for him earlier in the summer.
Vertonghen was playing as a left-back only because Benoît Assou-Ekotto was injured, but the defender's willingness to break forward and supplement attack was one of the features of the game. Aaron Lennon offered width and penetration on the right and Jermain Defoe was sharp, lively and confident. The striker did not get a touch in the build-up to Bale's goal, but his running off the ball was a considerable factor in why United's defence suddenly opened up.
What Spurs also showed in these moments was a rare sense of adventure for visiting teams at Old Trafford. They played with authority, knocking the ball around, with a lovely balance to the team. Certainly, it was unusual to see United lacking so many ideas on their own ground and, perhaps just as disappointingly for Ferguson, reacting so sluggishly to the shock of going behind so early.
From a United perspective it was a terribly soft goal to concede, but Vertonghen deserves an enormous amount of credit for his perseverance, driving into the penalty area and playing a one-two with Bale, allowing him to elude Nani and Michael Carrick and put himself into the position to shoot. The Belgian moved inside Rio Ferdinand to take aim with his right foot, and when Jonny Evans slid in to try to block the shot he succeeded only in diverting it past his own goalkeeper.
United usually pride themselves on reacting well to going behind but if anything the goal seemed to jar their confidence. They were short of ideas, lacking momentum and looking frustrated. More than anything, they were looking for someone to deliver a semblance of leadership. Robin van Persie had a chance from a misplaced defensive header, but that apart the home side did not concoct a single opportunity before going further behind after 32 minutes.
This was counter-attacking at its best: fast, incisive and devastating. Dembélé's clever pass set Bale running clear and from there the Welshman showed that when he is running full-pelt, with the ball at his feet, there are few more exciting sights in the Premier League. His change of direction and burst of acceleration was enough to keep Ferdinand at bay and, driving forward, his right-foot shot was angled perfectly to go across Anders Lindegaard into the bottom corner of his net. Bale rarely tends to use his right foot, but here was the evidence that it can be an understated weapon.
Eleven years to the day, United had come back from 3-0 down at half-time to win 5-3 at White Hart Lane. The second half here was extraordinary in its own right. Wayne Rooney replaced Ryan Giggs at the interval and quickly made his impact felt. After being fed the ball by Van Persie, he crossed from the right for Nani to direct his shot past Brad Friedel from six yards. The drama was unremitting from then onwards. Within a minute Defoe had eluded Rafael on the left and teed up Bale inside the penalty area. Lindegaard blocked the powerful shot, but Dempsey slotted in the rebound to make it 3-1. United, however, were playing now with the kind of intent that had not been seen inside the opening half. Straight from the kick-off, they were on the attack again. Van Persie slipped a pass into Kagawa's path and the midfielder's control and turn was exquisite, culminating with a shot just inside the post.
United will reflect with anguish on how close they came to an equaliser in that wild and dramatic finale. Rooney hit the woodwork with a free-kick, Carrick did the same with a header from Van Persie's corner and the Dutchman screwed his best chance wide. Yet held out and André Villas-Boas is entitled to regard it as his finest moment in English football.
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image: © Matt Boulton