Andre Villas-Boas’ team completely dominated the first half and were good value for their 2-0 lead at the break, courtesy of goals from Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale.
But Sir Alex Ferguson fired up the half-time hairdryer, sent on Wayne Rooney and United were transformed after the break.
In a crazy 140-second spell at the start of the second half, Nani finished off Rooney’s stunning right-wing cross, Clint Dempsey restored Spurs’ two-goal advantage and Shinji Kagawa was the calmest man in Manchester as he made the score 3-2.
It was breathless, ridiculous football that demonstrated once again why there is no substitute for the weekly high drama of the Premier League.
United were utterly dominant for the rest of the game and carved out a series of excellent chances but fortune was not on their side as Rooney’s free-kick crashed off the post, Carrick hit the bar and van Persie wasted a golden chance for the equaliser.
The home side’s fightback was inevitable, even though the visitors had completely commanded the opening period as they set about annexing a horror run at Old Trafford that stretched back to 1989 and 26 matches, 22 of which had been lost.
There has been a growing fluency to Tottenham’s football after the early teething problems under Villas-Boas, when they collected just two points from their opening three fixtures.
Whatever the masses think of the Portugese, he doesn’t do fear and it was apparent in the confident manner his team set about their evening’s work.
Spurs kept the ball for a minute-and-a-half before converted central defender Vertonghen made a break forward from his left-back berth. Cutting inside, he shared a crisp one-two with Bale before surging into an ocean of space and having a pop with his right foot from inside the area. His shot was no better than reasonable but a deflection off Jonny Evans’ hand wrong-footed Anders Lindegaard and put the visitors a goal up.
For the fifth time in six league matches this season, United had conceded the first goal and it was the least the visitors’ excellent opening spell deserved.
Mousa Dembele and Sandro controlled the midfield against Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, and Spurs’ passing was sharper and more confident.
After 21 minutes, the impressive Vertonghen had a good opportunity to double his own tally and put his team in the rare territory of being favourites to win at Old Trafford. The £8million summer signing from Ajax was unmarked in the box when Bale rifled over a free-kick from the right flank but he couldn’t get over the ball and sent his header over the bar.
Ten minutes later, Spurs got the second goal that their adventure and precision merited. It came from another electric counter-attack, led inevitably by the excellent Dembele.
The second of Tottenham’s outstanding Belgian southpaws tapped a neat pass to Bale in the middle, who left Rio Ferdinand trailing in his wake with almost embarrassing ease as he zoomed into the penalty box. On his less favoured right a goal was far from certain but the Welshman side-footed his finish emphatically across Lindegaard.
Villas-Boas celebrated like he had suffered every one of those 23 years of hurt. By contrast, the growling presence of Ferguson in the other dugout left you almost fearful for the treatment he was going to dish out to the United players at half-time.
The Scot’s response, other than to spray his hairdryer around the dressing room, was to haul off the anonymous Ryan Giggs and bring on Rooney, with Kagawa moving out to the left flank.
The change paid immediate dividends. Rooney’s brilliant cross from the right was tapped in by Nani six minutes after the break to herald a crazy spell of three goals in three minutes.
A minute later Dempsey restored Tottenham’s two-goal advantage. The American smashed in the rebound after Lindegaard had parried Bale’s first-time shot following a delicious reverse pass from Jermain Defoe that had once again left Ferdinand floundering.
But Spurs’ cushion was gone in sixty seconds. A brilliant van Persie pass put Kagawa through on goal and, with the least amount of fuss possible, the Japanese midfielder made it 3-2.
By now, United had a head of steam and Old Trafford was pulsating to the beat of a crazy match. It seemed almost run-of-the-mill when Rooney smashed a 30-yard free-kick against the post and the ball teetered provocatively in the six-yard box before being cleared.
Van Persie had a goal disallowed after 63 minutes and, then, six minutes later, 75,000 souls prepared themselves for what seemed an inevitable equaliser as the Dutchman raced on to a Carrick pass 10 yards from goal in his favourite inside left channel. The sighs of relief from the away end were audible as the drilled finish went well wide of the far post.
United continued to dominate but, for once, were unable to make their possession and opportunities count late on.