André Villas-Boas had described this fixture as a reference point for Tottenham Hotspur. The same applied to his managerial tenure at the club. As the snow drifted down at White Hart Lane and the emotion pulsed, it stood, in the end, as a monument to his team's persistence and the spirit that the Portuguese has instilled.
At 1-0 down and with just three minutes of injury time remaining, it felt as though Villas-Boas and his players would be left with regrets to further chill their bones. They had created the bulk of the chances and restricted United's attacking options, despite Sir Alex Ferguson's assertion that his side had fashioned a healthy fistful of opportunities on the counter.
United managed only five shots, compared to Tottenham's 25. It was the home team who enjoyed the possession and the territorial advantage.
United, though, were preparing to revel in a classic away win, one to set alongside those at Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, one to drag them a step closer to the title. Rio Ferdinand was magnificent at the back and he epitomised the collective resilience, particularly when he made a saving tackle on Jermain Defoe in the 79th minute. David de Gea was ready to argue with him over the man-of-the-match champagne. The goalkeeper made at least two saves that drew the breath.
Then all turned on its head. In one of those sequences that seem to be framed in slow motion, De Gea's tame punch saw the ball drop to Aaron Lennon, who stabbed it across for Clint Dempsey and the American steered home. The celebrations were frenzied. It represented redemption for Dempsey, who had earlier surged through, after slippery work from Mousa Dembélé, only to shoot straight at De Gea, whose save, nonetheless, was excellent and on a par with his earlier denial of a right-footed shot from Gareth Bale through a crowd.
Villas-Boas' personal highlight so far at Tottenham was the 3-2 Premier League victory at Old Trafford in September, the result that ignited his reign. It is safe to say that not too many teams will take four points off United this season. But it also spoke volumes for how Villas-Boas viewed his side's display that his relief at the 93rd-minute equaliser was followed by disappointment. He admitted that it felt like an opportunity missed, although he added that only the remainder of the season would prove if this were the case.
United are supposed to be the team who nick the result in injury time, and since the Premier League started, this was the latest stage in a game that they had conceded a decisive goal. Villas-Boas, who likes his statistical analysis, would surely smile at that. But the heart that he took was rooted in how his team stuck to their game-plan and kept their composure.
It was unfair of Ferguson to suggest that this game-plan simply involved Tottenham lumping long balls into box. There was industry about the performance but also threat, namely from Lennon. His personal duel with Patrice Evra was a sub-plot and the Tottenham winger emerged with honours, even if his one-footedness continues to be a source of angst. Having cut inside Evra to create a 14th minute opening, his lack of conviction on his left foot allowed De Gea to make his first save of the afternoon.
The crowd here at White Hart Lane have bought into what Villas-Boas is trying to build, even if they seemed to rebuke him when he switched Bale towards the end of the first half. Bale plays on the left, they chorused.
The fans stayed with the team and their raised hackles were down to refereeing decisions, particularly the handball claim against Nemanja Vidic. United, though, should have had a penalty when Steven Caulker tripped Rooney.
Villas-Boas' substitutions were like-for-like. He felt that plan A was working and that reward would be Tottenham's. There would not be a first league double over United since 1990 but the performance, as much as the late point, brought encouragement.