A comeback too far
Comebacks have a capacity to overshadow everything that precedes them. They have an irresistible momentum. They provide compelling drama. They forge identities as inveterate adventurers, where no situation is so desperate, no cause so doomed that a rescue effort is in vain. And so it was, on the 11th anniversary of perhaps the greatest ever fightback of Sir Alex Ferguson's long reign, that Manchester United attempted to stage a sequel.
Wayne Rooney was rampaging, Robin van Persie creating. Pushing 38, Paul Scholes seized control of the game, setting up wave after wave of attack. Having trailed 2-0 and 3-1, United threatened a repeat of the September day in 2001 when they trailed 3-0 to Tottenham and won 5-3, or the 2009 clash when Spurs' 2-0 lead was transformed into a 5-2 deficit. They scored twice, hit post and bar, appealed for penalty after penalty and drew save after save. Spurs were besieged though not ultimately beaten.
Such was the power of their second-half performance that it suggested a 70-year-old hairdryer remains the best in the business. Ferguson's invective brought a response. It was, in so many ways, a typical, time-honoured Manchester United display. "We were fantastic in the second half," said the manager. "We just dominated. It shows the quality we have in the team."
Each point was unarguable. Yet to leave it there would be to ignore the first 45 minutes, a time when Tottenham were terrific and United strangely supine. It was a time when the fault lines in Ferguson's team were too apparent, where they looked flawed, fallible and failing. It was a period where Rio Ferdinand's slowness was exposed by Spurs, where Rafael da Silva's defensive deficiencies were compounded by Nani's reluctance to support him, where United's ageing midfield were over-run by a Tottenham trio who allied passing prowess with pace and power.
Such qualities can seem mutually exclusive at Old Trafford, but not among the visitors. For the second time in five weeks, Mousa Dembele displayed the physical and technical ability to suggest he was the player United needed, with the athleticism and ability to prosper in their midfield.
Instead, he is at the heart of the new-look Tottenham, a group who are realising Andre Villas-Boas' vision. "The way we played in the first half was unbelievable with so much authority and so much confidence," said the Portuguese.
They were epitomised by Jan Vertonghen. The Belgian arrived from Ajax with a reputation as a goalscoring defender but with a preference for playing centre-back. With Benoit Assou-Ekotto injured, he was shifted sideways, but used it as a chance to roam forwards. The makeshift left-back swapped passes with Gareth Bale, darted between Michael Carrick and Nani, away from Ferdinand and saw his shot deflected in by Jonny Evans. "We lost the first goal by not defending properly," Ferguson said.
But problems on their right were a recurring theme. The combination of Bale and Vertonghen suggested the Welshman had been cloned; both broke at pace and scored from a solo run. Bale's followed a ball from Dembele. He sprinted away from Ferdinand, enduring a harrowing afternoon, and beat Anders Lindegaard.
Yet there was another contributor, a man who played a part in the first two goals without touching the ball. Often seen as a selfish striker, Jermain Defoe was selflessly superb, dragging Evans out of the way for the second with a great decoy run. He played a part in Spurs' third, too, but with a difference: he was in possession, escaping Ferdinand rather too easily before setting up Bale. The Welshman's stinging shot was parried into the path of Clint Dempsey and the American scored his first Spurs goal.
By then, however, the United fightback was well underway. Nani got their first goal, Shinji Kagawa the second during a spell of three goals in as many minutes after Ferguson introduced Rooney. The bombardment had begun. "We were really unlucky," said Ferguson. "We hit the post, hit the bar, had balls scrambled clear." Rooney and Carrick hit the upright and Van Persie had a goal disallowed.
A familiar script had a different ending. United have come from behind to win three times already this season but the dangers of the formula, of starting slowly with dodgy defending, were underlined. They can still traumatise opponents, not least those tormented by memories of past comebacks. "Last year I went 3-0 up at Stamford Bridge and it wasn't enough," remembered Villas-Boas, referring to a 3-3 draw.
For long-suffering Spurs fans, thoughts had to be cast back rather further. They had not won at Old Trafford for 23 years, since Gary Lineker was the match-winner at a time when Ferguson was fighting for his future.
They are distant days, so far off that Villas-Boas was 12 at the time. Now 35, he said: "This was a very, very special night for us. We wrote history for our club." When the history of the comeback is written, Manchester United will have a prominent part, but there are other ways to win a game, as Tottenham showed.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gareth Bale - A game of two halves could have had men of each period, but Bale had an impact in both. Despite suffering from flu in the week, he was devastating before the break and also had a hand in Spurs' crucial third goal. It was also the third to involve him. How Ferguson, who was interested in the Welshman when he moved to White Hart Lane, must wish he had bought Bale.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The combination of Rooney and Van Persie offered much for the future, but it only served to reinforce the impression that this is a side which may be potent going forward but has problems further back. They are down to their last two central defenders and one of those, Evans, finished the game with a dead leg. Ferdinand requires more protection, something a one-paced midfield is ill-equipped to offer. Scholes was superb in the second half but his limitations were apparent before then. Antonio Valencia was missed, if only for what he offers the team defensively, while there is a case for playing a more energetic central midfielder, especially if Darren Fletcher returns to his best.
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Terrific. With solidity in the middle and speed on the flanks, Villas-Boas' gameplan was excellent. Dembele and Sandro are shaping up to be one of the best central midfield partnerships in the country while William Gallas merits a mention for his second-half resistance. This Villas-Boas team, unlike the last, has real spirit.