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Pavlyuchenko seizes moment to boost in-form Spurs' title ambitions

Roman Pavlyuchenko is well into his fourth season at Tottenham and, if any match should stand as a microcosm of his utterly topsy-turvy experience in English football, it was surely this one.

An afternoon that had begun inauspiciously with him being hollered at by Harry Redknapp as he emerged lethargically from the bench ended with Redknapp outlining why the enigmatic Russian striker is crucial to the club's Premier League title challenge.

In between, Pavlyuchenko had frustrated and delighted in equal measure, missing one golden opportunity before confidently scoring what was both the winner and his first goal in the Premier League this season. It also propelled Tottenham back above Chelsea into third place ahead of their match at White Hart Lane on Thursday.

Yet, the way Pavlyuchenko headed straight down the tunnel on the final whistle in preference to enjoying a rare moment of glory seemed to speak volumes for his general disillusionment at Tottenham.

Redknapp, though, is cute enough to realise that he might again need Pavlyuchenko this season and his post-match press conference was duly laced with words of encouragement.

"I want to keep the four strikers," Redknapp said. "You need them. It's difficult. Pav's an international player. He's got the Euros coming up. They all want to play. In football, the ones you pick all love you and the ones you don't can't stand the sight of you. What can you do? That's football."

Redknapp has certainly attracted plenty of plaudits this season for this decision-making, with Alex Ferguson even claiming before yesterday's matches that Spurs were presently the best team in the Premier League.

As ever with Ferguson, there were various interpretations of his motives for singling out another club but, regardless of the intention, what followed was a performance to support his assessment.

Not so much in the first-half display, with Tottenham failing to muster even a single shot on target, but rather in the way they ground out a valuable victory against a Sunderland team who have clearly been lifted by the arrival of Martin O'Neill.

Manchester United have won numerous titles on the back of similarly workmanlike yet ultimately efficient performances.

The first sign that this might be a less fluent Tottenham performance was in the team sheet. The loss of Gareth Bale to a foot injury was not only to deprive Tottenham of their usual width down the left but, with Redknapp shifting Luka Modric across the midfield to cover, they also lacked their usual creativity through the centre.

Tottenham lost further width and pace when Aaron Lennon hobbled off with a suspected hamstring tear, prompting Redknapp to bring on Pavlyuchenko and shift Rafael van der Vaart to the right. Sunderland also deserved credit for the way they frequently forced Tottenham to play through the more congested midfield areas and, despite conceding most of the possession, both Kieran Richardson and Sebastian Larsson forced first-half saves from Brad Friedel.

Tottenham, though, emerged from the interval with far more purpose. Van der Vaart and Modric, in particular, were drifting inside more frequently and imparting a growing influence. Sunderland's defence had been generally admirable, with Titus Bramble especially efficient against Emmanuel Adebayor, but it took only a split-second of brilliance to settle the match.

Modric fed Van der Vaart, who delivered a superb reverse pass to split the defence for Pavlyuchenko. An accurate finish was still required and, without hesitation, he clinically drilled his shot past Sunderland's Ireland international goalkeeper Keiren Westwood.

Tottenham then really should have doubled their lead. Van der Vaart, again, split Sunderland's defence, with Adebayor's shot parried directly into the path of Modric. Yet with the goal at his mercy, he failed to control what should have been a simple finish and blazed his half-volley over the crossbar from just eight yards.

Further chances came and went for Tottenham but, with Nicklas Bendtner volleying Sunderland's only clear second-half opportunity wide, it was an afternoon when one goal had always looked sufficient. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent