LONDON (AP) — What appeared a snub two years ago could have been a lucky escape for Tottenham and a missed opportunity for Louis van Gaal.
Had Van Gaal not spurned Tottenham's interest in 2014, the Dutchman could have been managing the London club rather than Manchester United in Sunday's Premier League match.
Instead, with the smart, ambitious Mauricio Pochettino at the helm of a rapidly developing young squad, Tottenham blitzed a ragged United 3-0 and exposed Van Gaal's flawed tactics and badly-constructed squad.
Not only did it end a 15-year drought without a home win over United but it gave Tottenham a 12-point lead over the visitors in the league.
Such a gulf would have been unthinkable during Alex Ferguson's United reign when points were rarely dropped against Tottenham, which was renowned for managerial instability and cashing in on its best players.
"Lads," former United captain Roy Keane recalled Ferguson telling them before games. "It's Tottenham."
Now, while Tottenham is second and on course for its highest finish in more than 50 years, United is languishing outside the Champions League places in fifth.
"In the balance we are still ahead," Van Gaal said, comparing the two teams after Sunday's loss. "And you take one match as something that I have to say, 'The challenge is bigger'? The challenge is always bigger in a bigger club.
"But I (would have) liked to also sign for Tottenham Hotspur and (chairman) Daniel Levy knows that. But the challenge was bigger for me in Manchester United and shall always be bigger."
Undoubtedly, United with its $3 billion-plus valuation and reputed 659 million global followers is the bigger club. But more immediately, it is Tottenham with the more balanced, hungrier younger squad.
Van Gaal looked all set to take his job in England at Tottenham before the United hot seat became vacant with the firing of Ferguson's ill-fated successor, David Moyes.
Van Gaal, preparing to lead the Netherlands into the 2014 World Cup, naturally chose the record 20-time English champions over a club without a league title since 1961.
"I could have opted for an easier job," Van Gaal explained at the time. "If I had gone to Tottenham, the job would not have been as enormous."
United's pursuit of Van Gaal looked savvier when he steered an underwhelming Dutch team to third place at the World Cup. Just look how even qualifying for Euro 2016 proved beyond his successors. Van Gaal vacated the Oranje dugout at just the right time but perhaps took the United job at the wrong time.
Inheriting a team that finished five points below Tottenham in 2013-14, Van Gaal did turn that around to a six-point advantage the following May to steer United back into the Champions League, but only by finishing fourth.
United was then embarrassed in the group stage and may not return next season as it is currently four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, with six rounds remaining.
Reviving a fallen power has proved beyond the 64-year-old coach despite being allowed to spend more than $350 million on new talent. Young players, notably teenage forward Marcus Rashford, only gained first-team opportunities due to injuries.
Van Gaal's 2014 snub led to Spurs resorting to their backup plan. Pochettino was prized away from Southampton, securing the services of an impressive younger coach albeit one without a trophy on his C.V.
The 44-year-old former Argentina international has steadily — without much fanfare or bluster — steered Spurs up the standings, with only Leicester ahead of them.
Had Van Gaal taken the Tottenham job would he have been as astute as Pochettino, who has turned academy product Harry Kane into the league's top scorer, developed third-tier midfielder Dele Alli into an England international and transformed record-signing Erik Lamela from the flop he inherited into a first-team mainstay?
Tottenham has been shedding its chokers reputation and holding its own in second place under Pochettino.
Van Gaal, though, bristled on Sunday at suggestions that his sliding doors moment in 2014 saw him make the wrong coaching move.
"I'm sorry for Tottenham but Manchester United is a bigger club," Van Gaal told reporters at White Hart Lane. "And I think it is a little bit pathetic that you ask that. Because they have won 3-0, it's easy to ask that. But OK, you enjoy yourself."
Van Gaal doesn't seem to be enjoying himself at United, with no sign he will replicate the trophy success he enjoyed at Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
With a second season ending without a trophy and United not denying they are planning a managerial change in the summer, Van Gaal looked doomed.
And if United overlooks Jose Mourinho again, the American owners could be battling with Tottenham once more for the services of a manager. Pochettino's work at White Hart Lane has made him the standout choice to lead United.
Soon he could have the same decision to make as Van Gaal: Tottenham or United?
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports