Manchester United are the kings of comebacks yet this prestigious tag barely gave justice to the fight staged at White Hart Lane on September 29, 2001. The footballing gods could not have scripted a better come-from-behind win for the Red Devils since the Premier League’s inception when Sir Alex Ferguson’s boys paid a visit to take on Glenn Hoddle’s brave Tottenham.
Playing his favoured 4-4-2 combination against Spurs’ 3-5-2 tactical arrangement, Sir Alex was looking to use this tricky game as a launch-pad to kick start a somewhat stuttering opening leg of a brand new season. The trip to North London came on the back of a moral-sapping Champions League loss at Deportivo La Coruna and there was enough evidence that the champions looked vulnerable at the back whatever their attacking options might have been.
With influential midfielder Roy Keane suspended and Ryan Giggs rested for the Spurs clash, the onus fell on Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes to control the middle of the park against a clever, agile and athletic Tottenham side that always banked on wide players with tremendous counter attacking abilities. Given Glenn Hoddle’s focus on set-pieces, it was of no surprise that German left-winger Christian Ziege was a constant threat to the United defence not only for his effectiveness from dead-ball situations but also for his link up play from left-back to central midfield.
Glenn Hoddle gave a debut to his new £8m signing Dean Richards bought from the manager’s former club Southampton. It was a good signing at that time which, honestly, never really took off in the long term. Yet Richards will always remember his debut game given the entertainment it produced for the whole of 90minutes which can only be described in memorable archives. The game could be easily divided into two halves with either team dominating one. Tottenham fans will have been forgiven for thinking their side had the points in the bag after a stunning opening 45. United’s vulnerability at the back was always going to be a concern for Sir Alex and Spurs set out to take full advantage of that by relying on set pieces and long balls in addition to a slick passing game. The home side was rewarded for it’s adventurous approach to the game when debutant Richards got past his marker, that is, Ruud van Nistelrooy to head home a Ziege corner kick from the right. 1-0 to Spurs and what a dream debut for Deano.
Despite United’s one touch football, the visitors were having immense problems tackling a hard-working Spurs midfield trio of Gus Poyet, Darren Anderton and Steffen Freund. To put it in simple terms, United were being outplayed and out-thought by a neat football playing side managed by a tactically efficient manager. The home side doubled their lead in the 25th minute when Mauricio Taricco, reveling on the right hand side with the amount of space he was affored, found Darren Anderton who in turn passed to Gus Poyet. The Uruguayan produced a neat ball that Les Ferdinand met with great skill and pace by spinning and turning Frenchman Laurent Blanc before firing a powerful low shot past Fabian Barthez. White Hart Lane was ecstatic, brimming with confidence that Spurs could make it four in a row against the side from Old Trafford after three successive 3-1 wins in the previous seasons. Frankly, Spurs deserved to be in the lead as the home side’s midfield embarrassed Sir Alex’s men. United were pegged back further by injury to Nicky Butt forced off and replaced by attacking forward, Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tottenham continued to pour forward after restricting the opponents to ineffective long range shooting and amazingly before the first-half whistle went found themselves 3-0 up with their third effort on target. In added time, Taricco again found Poyet who crossed for Ziege and the German capped off an impressive first period performance with a fine header past Frenchman Barthez.
Not only were the Spurs and United fans left stunned by the extraordinary developments of the first half, the Premier League was left wondering whether Tottenham had punctured a big hole into United’s pride and their faltering title bid so early in the season.
Such embarrassments do not go down well with Sir Alex Fergusson who was no doubt angry at the sight of his players producing a negative performance and one can easily think of the tongue lashing David Beckham and company received from their manager. What happened in the next 45 minutes can only be scripted in dreamland for United fans who were to be treated to the comeback of the decade and this from a side renowned for famous fightbacks. The Red Devils started the second half just the way Spurs finished off the first period. The visitors pulled a goal back within a minute of the restart when David Beckham crossed to Gary Neville and Andy Cole dived in to head home the right back’s cross. It was 3-2 soon when on the 58th minute Laurent Blanc rose up well to head in David Beckham’s corner and the fightback was truly on as Spurs were not able to match United’s passing game and substitute Solskjaer, Mikel Silvestre and Veron were masterminding the comeback that looked so unlikely at the break. The home side were pegged back at their own half and it was a matter of time before the equalizer came when Norwegian Solskjaer picked out Silvestre and the Frenchman, probably for the very first time in the match, found an otherwise ineffective Ruud van Nistelrooy. Given the striking instincts of the Dutchman, the visitors leveled as van Nistelrooy headed past Neil Sullivan after 72 minutes – 3-3 and the Red Devils were now sensing real blood to win the match.
The inevitable eventually came to fruition as one of the architects of this amazing match, Veron put United into the lead four minutes later with a low 18-yard shot past Sullivan’s left corner before David Beckham put the icing on the cake as he hammered a shot past the hapless Spurs goalkeeper three minutes from time to round off a remarkable game.
One question that comes to mind is how could United write these amazing comeback scripts that even render Hollywood plots irrelevant and boring. The match was virtually divided into two halves as Spurs scored all three goals in the first period with probably their three chances of the game. United proved they are the masters of recovery by scoring amazing five goals in the second forty five minutes to destroy Glenn Hoddle’s seemingly early winter party.
“Remarkable, absolutely remarkable,” said Ferguson after the game. “It might not have been too good for the blood pressure but I’ll be able to look back on that day and remember it vividly for the rest of my life. Not many managers could say that.”