There were really only two ways this match would finish — either Jose Mourinho would continue on his road to redemption by winning his first game back at Old Trafford, or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would show that he is the man for Manchester United’s future, by putting one over the old master.
The fact that it was the latter rather than the former owed everything to the performance of Marcus Rashford, who scored twice and could have had more on a night when United’s collective desire to to beat up their former boss was greater than Tottenham’s attempts to keep their upwards momentum since Mourinho took charge a fortnight ago.
The result ended a run of three straight wins for Spurs in that time, and allowed United to move to sixth place.
Billing this as sorcerer v apprentice might be doing a disservice to Solskjaer, who has now managed United for almost a year, since Mourinho was sacked last December.
But there was no shortage of intrigue in watching how the two managers matched up, with Mourinho returning to his former club on a high, and Solskjaer reportedly in danger of dismissal.
They both set their teams up identically but injuries meant Tottenham looked to have the stronger forward line, with Harry Kane, Heung Min Son and Lucas Moura supplemented by man of the moment Dele Alli, who has been reborn under Mourinho.
United were without Anthony Martial, which not only meant another start for teenager Mason Greenwood, but also put the responsibility for leading the line on to Rashford, who responded superbly.
The young United striker was superb, and could have had a hat-trick in the first-half alone, when United dominated from the start and took a deserved lead, only to be pegged back against the run of play by a piece of magic from Dele Alli.
And with observers wondering whether a United side who have thrown away leads so often in recent weeks would crumble after the equaliser, it was Rashford who put ahead again, winning a penalty and then putting it away with a coolness belying his 21 years.
But you have to say he was aided and abetted by some woeful defending from Tottenham, especially in the troublesome right-back area that opponents are starting to exploit as a weak spot.
Serge Aurier is an eccentric player, sometimes an asset in attack but always a liability at the back, and Rashford exploited Tottenham’s weakest link ruthlessly. Nominally starting as a central striker, Rashford found most joy in drifting out to his more favoured position on the left wing and then cutting in to shoot or run at goal.
He combined the two to lethal effect when he opened the scoring in the sixth minute, exploiting the space Aurier left behind him to cut in and fire a shot towards the near post that Paolo Gazzaniga should have done more with than simply flapping it on to the woodwork and into the net.
The Argentinian goalkeeper partly redeemed himself with a couple of saves to deny Rashford, but had little chance when the England striker scored again, from the penalty spot, after a rash foul by Moussa Sissoko, another player who is happier going forward than defending.
Those two, and central defender Davinson Sanchez, were particularly poor and Mourinho knows now the areas that need strengthening if Spurs are to avoid this unfortunate habit of conceding two goals in each of the four games they have played under him.
For all Alli’s magic and Kane’s prowess, Tottenham will not challenge for the trophies Mourinho has targetted while they continue to leak goals. It is not unlike the days under Ossie Ardiles and his Famous Five attacking formation. But it is most unlike a Mourinho side. His successful sides have usually been miserly and pragmatic, finding a way to win games when it matters. But last night Spurs showed the problems that cost Mauricio Pochettino his job.
Yet Solskjaer has shown at times that he can send out a side capable of winning when it means most, too, as he did at Wembley last season when United rode their luck to win through a breakaway goal from Rashford.
It was a turning point for the Norwegian, getting one over Pochettino, the man who was tipped then and is again mooted as the man to succeed him as Manchester United manager. But this game was nothing like last year’s meeting at Wembley, nor the equivalent at Old Trafford when Tottenham ended up 3-0 winners.
This time, United were on top from the start, full of energy, closing down Tottenham’s players and not let them get going. Even though they looked understandably dispirited and ragged when Dele Alli equalised, Solksjaer’s men pulled themselves together to go again after half-time, regain the lead and close out a valuable victory.
A triumph for him, for United and a time for Mourinho to reflect on the size of his task at Tottenham.