For 10 minutes the course not merely of this match but of modern football was turned on its head as a club with an annual budget of €600,000 threatened to humiliate a team of Premier League aristocrats. Then reality bit. Tottenham Hotspur responded to Shamrock Rovers' impudent seizure of the lead with three quick-fire goals that restored order.

In the end the only problems that Harry Redknapp was left with were welcome ones: impressive performances by Giovani dos Santos and Jermaine Defoe gave him valuable selection options for Sunday's derby against Arsenal.

Most of the players who will feature in that match were given the night off for the visit of a team of part-timers in a tournament that Redknapp does not consider a priority. The full-back Kyle Walker was the only survivor from the side that had started their last Premier League match. Nevertheless, with Aaron Lennon returning from injury and Roman Pavlyuchenko partnering Defoe, they were still a team with far more renown than their opponents, who Uefa rank as the 324th best to have played in Europe in the last five years. Rovers had ridiculed that ranking by reaching the group stages but defying the odds again here would have secured their position in Irish folklore.

Their manager, Michael O'Neill, deployed the tactic that brought victory over Partizan Belgrade in the qualifying round, and set out to contain and counter. They did very little of the latter and had to strain every sinew to do the former in a first half that Spurs dominated without scoring a goal.

Rovers' goalkeeper, Richard Brush, produced a series of fine saves, starting in the second minute when he held a low drive from Dos Santos. In the 16th minute they were almost undone by their own plot: after they ventured downfield for the first time, Tottenham launched a rapid counter-attack that culminated with Dos Santos sending Defoe clear. Brush hurtled off his line and deflected the striker's shot on to the crossbar.

The Birmingham-born Brush, who counts Coventry City and Shrewsbury Town among past employers, then denied Pavlyuchenko with a superb close-range block after the Russian had feinted past the centre-back Daniel Murray.

Spurs struck the bar again in the 33rd minute, with a fine shot form the edge of the area by Danny Rose. Such was Rovers' defiance that Murray blocked Sébastien Bassong's follow-up with his face.

Making it to half-time on level terms was a minor triumph for the underdogs, but things were about to get much better for them. In the 50th minute a Gary McCabe free-kick was their first shot on target – Carlo Cudicini should have held it but instead he batted the ball out to the edge of the box. Pat Sullivan fired it back in and Rice flicked it past the goalkeeper and into the net. The 4,000 delirious away fans began to dream.

"I had been happy with how we were playing and they scored from their first strike on goal," said Redknapp. "You began to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights." It was not.

Rovers's defiance lasted 10 minutes. Then Dos Santos delivered a splendid left-footed cross and Pavlyuchenko rose unmarked to head past Brush. Two minutes later Andros Townsend, who thrived after replacing Lennon at half-time, sent in an excellent cross and Defoe headed into the net. Defoe and Dos Santos enhanced their chances of featuring against Arsenal by combining for the third goal in the 66th minute. Defoe won the ball, scampered 50 yards and teed up Dos Santos, who lifted the ball over Brush from 14 yards.

"In the end we succumbed to their pace and freshness," said O'Neill, whose team will conclude their domestic season in October. "Some of our players have played over 50 competitive games this season so it was a huge ask to hang on. They did themselves, the club and our league justice, but ultimately were gallant losers."