It was like one of those B-thrillers in which the psychopath appears to have met a bloody end. But, as the husband and wife, their life so brutally disturbed, hug in relief, behind them rises the spectre of a knife-wielding figure who just won't be destroyed. It may have been Manchester United with all their legendary powers of recovery who were three goals in arrears at the interval, but if ever a team should have had no way back into this contest it was Sir Alex Ferguson's men. However, Tottenham were so busy congratulating themselves on a match won, they weren't looking as United appeared behind them with vengeance in mind...
And just before 4 o'clock yesterday, this corner of north London was aflame with audacious thoughts of a humiliation for the champions. An hour later, such passions had been doused by a remarkable comeback from United, who replied with four goals in 30 second-half minutes. David Beckham, captain for the day, added a late fifth. Not so much Red Devils as Red Adairs.
Rarely can two halves of one contest have been so diverse in their contents, Tottenham heartened by an early debut goal from the £8.1m Dean Richards and proceeding to embarrass the visitors who had arrived without the suspended Roy Keane and injured Ryan Giggs with further success from Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege.
Whatever Ferguson's observations to his men at half-time, whether it was a teacup against the wall job, a sarcastic sermon or maybe, as it probably was, a forceful appeal to them to raise their game to the standards that such illustrious performers should maintain his words had an extraordinarily galvanising effect.
Andy Cole, watched by the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, displayed the kind of sharpness around the box that deserves to earn him a place in the starting line-up against Greece next week and scored within a minute of the re-start. The floodgates had been breached and Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and finally David Beckham poured through the defences with a tidal wave of thrilling, pass-and-move football.
Tottenham, a trifle flattered by their interval advantage, staggered like stricken pugilists. They had no response whatsoever and it will need more than Eileen Drewery to repair some broken spirits in the coming fortnight. What changed, Glenn Hoddle was asked afterwards? "Half-time,'' the Spurs manager responded drily. "It was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance from both teams. In the first half we were very decisive and very confident on the ball. In the second half we were very disjointed. We lost belief in ourselves.''
The Spurs captain, Teddy Sheringham, would have liked nothing better than success against his former side, but like the rest of his team he was transformed from exhilarated to exasperated by what was going on around him well before the end.
It was, according to Ferguson, "probably the best we have played away from home a remarkable performance and result. In the first half we played as though we felt sorry for ourselves. We were disappointed by Tuesday's result after playing so well. There was a lot of unfair criticism which we did not enjoy. But you can show determination or give in to that.''
Ferguson wouldn't divulge precisely what was said during the break, but conceded: "They needed to rediscover what they were about. They are the best players in the country and it was about time they proved it.''
With United's equilibrium already disturbed by Keane and Giggs' absences, Ferguson had to reshuffle further when Nicky Butt departed with an apparent rib injury. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced him and was followed at half-time by Mickaël Silvestre, in place of Denis Irwin.
Before the start, the most intriguing aspect had been the health of the respective rearguards. While United have discarded a central defender in Jaap Stam and secured a replacement in the wily Blanc, Spurs believe they have overcome the considerable loss of Sol Campbell by wresting Dean Richards from Southampton.
The debutant did not take long to endear himself to the White Hart Lane faithful, either. After 14 minutes Tottenham won their first corner and Darren Anderton provided a typically tantalising delivery to the near post where Richards stooped to head past Fabien Barthez. Some arrival.
At that stage, United were being out-manoeuvred and out-muscled in midfield and could have no complaint about going further behind 10 minutes later. The visitors lost possession in their own half and when Gus Poyet chipped the ball forward Ferdinand eluded the offside trap to beat Barthez with a firm, low cross shot. In added time, Ziege made things even more uncomfortable for United with a facile header from Poyet's centre.
But Ferguson's men emerged from their half-time deliberations with renewed purpose and scored within a minute, Cole deftly despatching a header past Neil Sullivan from Gary Neville's cross. Just before the hour, Blanc further reduced arrears with a fine header from Beckham's corner. United were back to their smooth, sublime best and Richards was beginning to look a zero over-priced.
With 19 minutes left Silvestre crossed with precision for Van Nistelrooy to head home and bring the scores level. Veron edged his team in front with a firm drive four minutes later and finally Beckham struck a fifth as Spurs capitulated.
Ferguson's only concern will be that his team continues to ship goals, but while they continue to more than compensate why should he give a damn?
Tottenham Hotspur 3
Richards 15, Ferdinand 25, Ziege 45
Manchester United 5
Cole 46, Blanc 58, Van Nistelrooy 72, Veron 76, Beckham 87
Half-time: 3-0 Attendance: 36,038Reuse content