Traditionally a fixture laden with goals and controversy, the importance of this particular encounter was heightened by the need for a response. Both sides suffered setbacks a week ago, and United came into this fixture 10 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal.
The trouncing at Manchester City and Christian Eriksen's injury compelled André Villas-Boas to revert to the 4-3-3 Spurs began the season with. Nacer Chadli's return at the expense of Andros Townsend was overdue, although the Mousa Dembélé-Sandro-Paulinho triumvirate flattered United.
Ryan Giggs' excursions in Leverkusen midweek meant he was omitted from the squad entirely, as Tom Cleverley was given an umpteenth chance to justify his inclusion in United's first XI. Embarrassingly, Giggs has been United's best creative midfielder in his mid-to-late 30s and, while his absence was unsurprising, it was damaging.
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Theatrically, Villas-Boas was the last to emerge from the tunnel before kick-off, faced by a vulturous flock of photographers who sensed a kill. Gary Neville's description of David Luíz irked the Portuguese two seasons ago during his disastrous stint at Chelsea and Villas-Boas might have shown his players the pundit's analysis of their leisureliness at City, considering how determined Spurs started. Roberto Soldado predictably copped it from the terraces for "jogging", but the Lilywhites were lively.
Aaron Lennon was the one consistent winger who troubled Patrice Evra at his peak, and a couple of early lunges from the Frenchman renewed his concerns. It was Tottenham's other right-footed wide man who gave them the lead on 18 minutes, though.
Kyle Walker smashed his free-kick hard and low under United's wall to infuriate David de Gea on his 100th United appearance, as the hosts were rewarded for their gutsy start. Villas-Boas could have no complaints about the crowd's vociferousness, which peaked during a stirring spell after Walker's opener, when two penalty appeals were rejected as Spurs sought to capitalise on their advantage.
If the three-man midfield was excessive, it was also effective. United were utterly overrun and Danny Welbeck's selection on the left predictably backfired, as United's bursts forward came down Antonio Valencia's right-hand side, alas his crossing was consistently woeful and Spurs thrived on the counter-attack.
Paulinho's forays were a constant concern, and he eventually teed up Soldado for a presentable chance to double the lead, only he blazed his shot high and wide of De Gea's upright. The Spurs bench reacted as animatedly as their pirouetting coach. Lennon drew a save from De Gea soon after as the cracks widened in United's defence, yet if one club is all-too-familiar with the champions' powers of recovery it is Tottenham.
Unbeaten in 12 at White Hart Lane, United have come from 3-0 down at half-time and nabbed a last-minute equaliser in that time. Wayne Rooney prodded in the undeserved equaliser three minutes after Soldado's glaring miss, via an assist from Walker, who messily miscued Phil Jones' cross into his own six-yard box. "A sniffer goal," David Moyes described it as.
Subdued at losing their lead, Tottenham were galvanised by the exuberance of Sandro 11 minutes after the pause. The Brazilian crashed in a stunning, swerving strike past the powerless De Gea, yet the pattern of the game continued as United extinguished Tottenham's joy three minutes after they had regained their lead.
Shinji Kagawa switched to the wing in an attempt to get Welbeck - implored by Moyes to "move" more - involved and it worked when he latched on to a through ball and was tripped by Hugo Lloris. Typical Tottenham. Rooney dispatched the spot kick as United threatened another fight back.
The spectacle was briefly interrupted by Lennon's substitution, a decision which was widely booed by the home supporters, but that was the only flak Villas-Boas copped on a day Tottenham played excitingly again. Welbeck nearly intensified the unhappiness when he motored past Michael Dawson into the Spurs area, only he failed to find the hat-trick hunting Rooney.
Javier Hernández replaced the blunt Welbeck. Spurs had an offer rejected for the Mexican in the summer and his super-sub prowess was an ominous sign for these most pessimistic of supporters, although he made no impact. Townsend came closest to claiming a winner when Walker's cross eluded him following a breakneck breakaway, and it's now a not-so-unlucky 13 unbeaten for United at the Lane.