Welcome respite for Villas-Boas
Sunderland 1 Tottenham 2
Andre Villas-Boas appears to have weathered the storm at Tottenham Hotspur and watched it drift off towards Manchester after a second win of the week lifted his side to sixth in the table.
The previously under-fire Portuguese can feel vindicated. For all their stumbling at the start of Villas-Boas' second season and the personal criticism it provoked, Spurs are just three points behind second-placed Liverpool.
It was not a vintage performance from them in the first half, but they were very impressive at times in the second as Sunderland ran out of ideas and steam.
Tottenham still needed a referee howler to help them secure the win, Lee Mason missing substitute Sandro's blatant handball in the area with just over quarter of an hour remaining, but Jermain Defoe also hit the woodwork twice.
Sunderland have been given hope since Gus Poyet arrived as manager, but they have not been given a lifeline out of the drop zone.
Next week's visit to West Ham, who sit fourth from bottom, will be crucial, but Poyet does not want his side waiting for those sorts of games to pursue victories and he took the bold decision to start with both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher up front.
Perhaps he felt Tottenham, with just one league win in six, were the sort of side Sunderland should be beating on home soil. Such is the fragility of Villas-Boas' side, he had a point.
The visitors could not open Sunderland up at the back, and looked vulnerable whenever they were asked to defend. Both Fletcher, running onto a high long ball from Phil Bardsley, and Jack Colback, after fine approach play between Fletcher and Altidore, got in behind the Spurs defence, but failed to find the target with just goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to beat.
The Frenchman decided to give them a helping hand. Coming out to claim a cross from Ondrej Celustka on the edge of his six yard box, the goalkeeper misjudged both the pace and height and could only get his fingertips to the ball. It dropped to Adam Johnson who smashed a rising shot into the top corner.
Sunderland believed their escape was on again, but they lost the lead before half time in the sort of sloppy fashion that has been their Achilles' heel all season.
A free-kick from Holtby travelled to the far post, where Nacer Chadli got his head above Celustka to put it back into the six yard box. Sunderland's defenders were flat footed, Vito Mannone was stuck on his line and Paulinho stabbed the ball home.
The momentum was with Spurs and they took the lead early in the second half. The goal owed much to Moussa Dembele's surging run into the area, but the ball eventually went in off the heel of John O'Shea.
It was the fifth own goal Sunderland have scored in nine games – not so much shooting themselves in the foot as slitting their own throats.
Later on, Aaron Lennon crossed for Defoe, who headed against the post. The striker dragged an even better chance wide from Holtby's sublime pass and fired against the opposite post late on. Paulinho wasted another opportunity when he tried to pass to Defoe instead of shooting.