It was a turn-around so startling as to seem faintly ridiculous. For 75 minutes Tottenham Hotspur huffed and puffed, Gareth Bale was anonymous and the club's Champions League dream looked ready to absorb a body blow. Manchester City's first-half superiority had been total and they were pretty comfortable, if rather less forward-thinking, after the interval. Vincent Kompany, the captain, had been imposing to the point of frightening.

But in seven crazy, impossible-to-foresee minutes destiny intervened, Tottenham revived spectacularly and City were left to consider that their grip on the Premier League title might not last beyond Manchester United's home fixture against Aston Villa on Monday night.

In the battle to make sense of it all, André Villas-Boas emerged with credit. Each of the Tottenham manager's three substitutes played a part, while the switch to a 4-3-3 formation allowed his team to chisel out a foothold, which grew into something glorious.

It would be remiss to overlook the contribution of the goalgoalkeeper Hugo Lloris, whose pair of first-half saves to deny Edin Dzeko and the outstanding Carlos Tevez allowed Tottenham to cling on. But, as so often these days, the headline-hogger was Gareth Bale.

Back after a two-week injury absence that had seemed rather longer, he had been peripheral in his starting position behind the striker and, again, for the majority of the second half, for which he was moved to the right flank. But everything changed when he sculpted a low cross with the outside of his left boot and, with Kompany inexplicably freezing, Clint Dempsey tapped home the equaliser.

Tottenham felt belief course through their bodies and they located the jugular when one substitute, Lewis Holtby, found another, Jermain Defoe. Confronted by Kompany, whose sudden vulnerability reflected that of his team, the striker jinked inside and unfurled a right-footed curler to the far corner for his first club goal of the year. Nobody could quibble about the timing.

The stadium dissolved into frenzy but there was more to come and, inevitably, it came from Bale. Villas-Boas's other substitute, Tom Huddlestone, released him and he exploded clear of the City back-line before slowing down to craft a clipped finish over the advancing Joe Hart.

City could have been forgiven for lamenting the unfairness of it all, although their loss of focus was lamentable in itself. They had contributed fully to the spectacle but, in keeping with the theme of their title defence, they were left with regrets. In the 90th minute the manager, Roberto Mancini, withdrew the left-back Gaël Clichy and introduced the centre-half Joleon Lescott as an auxiliary centre-forward but the bamboozlement had already occurred.

For so long it had looked certain to end differently. Mancini's intent had been plain from the way he lined up his team, with Tevez deployed close to Dzeko and menace across the midfield. City put down the early marker. There appeared little on as Tevez scuttled to win the ball and hold it up by the corner flag, with Jan Vertonghen at his back. But he worked a little room, turned and slipped a pass inside the ball-watching Scott Parker for the onrushing James Milner. His pull-back invited Nasri to guide a volley into the corner of the net. For the former Arsenal player, it was a sweet moment.

City's form has come too late for their title defence but they have regularly been good to watch in recent weeks and there was a lot to like about their game in the first half. Tevez was relentless, epitomising the team's collective work ethic, and he dovetailed seamlessly with Dzeko, the Bosnian, who scored four times in this fixture last season. It was possible to fear for Tottenham every time City swept forward.

Nasri was elusive in a good way, although his studs-up, over-the-ball connection with Kyle Walker's shin in the eighth minute was an ugly moment. The only conclusion to draw about the lack of censure was that the referee, Lee Mason, cannot have seen it. On another day he could have been sent off.

The game might have been over at the interval. Pablo Zabaleta and Tevez combined to release Nasri and, as white shirts converged, he poked narrowly wide of the far post while Lloris proved once again why he has been such an important addition to the Tottenham squad. After Tevez had set Dzeko in between Michael Dawson and Vertonghen, the goalkeeper flung out his right hand to block and then, from Tevez's header, his reflexes were first-rate.

Tottenham had first-half flickers. Dempsey weighted a pass inside Nasri for Walker but Hart left his line quickly to make the target sufficiently small – the full-back's shot flew off him – while Dempsey directed a free header over the crossbar from a corner in the 44th minute.

The second half had seemed seismic at the outset for Tottenham. If they were to make a statement regarding their Champions League aspirations, it surely needed to come here. But as City pressed and stifled, and Villas-Boas' players appeared to have few options in possession, it was easy to see the game drifting from them. Where was the inspiration coming from?

The answer was obvious. Bale refused to be suppressed and, if his assist for Dempsey was the spark, the marvellous finish for his 23rd goal of the club season was the clinching moment. Spurs will approach their final matches with renewed vigour. They are back in business.

Man of the match Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)