Spurs step on gas to keep up Euro drive
Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00
At the final whistle Andre Villas-Boas clenched both fists in a modest but evidently heartfelt gesture of celebration. After that came a bear-hug with his assistant, Steffen Freund, and an embrace for Scott Parker as Tottenham's manager headed towards the new year with a reputation shredded at Chelsea last season restored impressively and his new side seemingly set fair for Champions League qualification.
Spurs were good, at times very good, and, despite being much improved from a few weeks ago, Martin O'Neill will know his team could have suffered an appreciably heavier defeat at the hands of opponents who have won six of their last eight league games. "We played with a lot of heart and got ourselves in front," said Sunderland's manager. "But Tottenham are a fine side. Andre has done brilliantly."
Tottenham's manager could have done without Gareth Bale incurring a harsh-looking late yellow card for diving after a challenge by Craig Gardner which, being his fifth booking this season, means he misses Tuesday's match against Reading. The left-winger has now been booked for diving five times in the past two seasons, more than any other Premier League player. "I've been clipped and booked for no reason again," Bale said. "People think I'm diving when there's contact. If people kick me, I'm going to go down."
Spurs started deceptively slowly. Perhaps noting that Manchester City's lack of width played a big part in their struggles to get behind O'Neill's defence when Sunderland beat Roberto Mancini's side here on St Stephen's Day, Villas-Boas arranged Spurs in a 4-4-2 formation featuring Aaron Lennon and Bale wide.
Lennon was quiet early on but he dodged Matthew Kilgallon adroitly to direct a deft chip in Bale's direction, the Welshman heading disappointingly wide from 10 yards. With Emmanuel Adebayor hitting the bar with a shot from two yards out, Sunderland were living dangerously but somehow took the lead five minutes before half-time. Kyle Walker's foul on Stephane Sessegnon resulted in a free-kick delivered with vicious curl and dip by Sebastian Larsson.
Extending a boot to connect with that superior delivery Steven Fletcher forced Hugo Lloris, excellent throughout, into a fine save only for John O'Shea to redirect the rebound home from six yards. "We deserved to be 1-0 down," conceded Villas-Boas. "But we talked about how to change things at half-time."
Tottenham's players heeded his homily and a combination of Walker's corner and the head of Sunderland's Carlos Cuellar provided an equaliser.
Lennon was growing into the game and when his ball ricocheted back off Kilgallon he took full advantage. After knocking it past O'Shea, the winger sashayed around the defender, regaining possession before beating Simon Mignolet with an accomplished finish.
Despite Lloris saving Adam Johnson's 20-yard shot, Spurs were finally firmly in control and although they had further chances on the break, most notably involving Defoe and Adebayor, Villas-Boas was sufficiently anxious to replace Lennon with Parker.
Bale's yellow card following that controversial tumble – Gardner appeared to block the winger's path with an arm and knee-level contact looked to be made – had offered Sunderland unlikely hope.
"It was a bit unfair and a bad mistake but it was a consequence of Gareth's pace; it makes things very difficult for referees to judge," said Villas-Boas. "Everybody can make a mistake."
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