Gareth Bale struck yet another magnificent winning goal at the Lane this afternoon as we concluded our Premier League season with a 1-0 win over Sunderland - but events elsewhere meant it wasn’t enough to secure a top four finish.
Arsenal’s win by the same scoreline against Newcastle United at St James’ Park means we finish this season in fifth place in the division, but we do so with a club record Premier League haul of 72 points, and that alone gives us plenty of optimism for next season and beyond.
It was a difficult contest against a dogged Sunderland outfit who defended impressively and were determined to end the campaign themselves on a positive note. But we continued to prod and probe all afternoon for that elusive winning goal, Bale finally providing the magic moment in the 89th minute – his 21st league goal of the season, another club record in the Premier League.
Just one change was made to the starting line-up from the win at the Britannia Stadium last weekend, with Andre Villas-Boas swapping Steven Caulker for Benoit Assou-Ekotto in defence.
The game got underway amidst a cracking atmosphere inside the Lane, the importance of the occasion felt in all corners of the stadium and we made a good start to the contest as we searched for the all-important three points.
And just four minutes were on the clock when we had our first opportunity, Emmanuel Adebayor breaking clear down the right and firing in from a very tight angle, but Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet saved for a corner which came to nothing.
We were dominant in possession and carved out another chance on 16 minutes with a lovely move from front to back. Kyle Walker won the ball in the right-back position and fed Scott Parker, who released Adebayor into the left channel. The Togo striker cut inside John O’Shea before clipping a cross into the area but it was just too far ahead of Gareth Bale.
Our Welsh star was then at the centre of the half’s most controversial moment on 20 minutes. Tom Huddlestone’s ball over the top found Bale racing into the area, shoulder to shoulder with Sebastian Larsson. The Swede appeared all over him as he tumbled to the ground, but referee Andre Marriner waved away our penalty appeals and instead booked Bale for simulation.
Four minutes later Mignolet was called into action again, this time diving to his right to deny Huddlestone one of his trademark long-rangers, but it was a comfortable save in truth.
Sunderland, assured of their Premier League safety but fielding a much-changed line-up due to injuries and suspensions, were struggling to get a foothold in the match but on the half-hour mark, they showed that they still could pose a threat.
Jan Vertonghen’s headed clearance fell to Connor Wickham, he laid it off to Danny Graham down the right flank and advanced into the area where he met Graham’s low cross and flicked the ball goalwards, bringing the best out of Hugo Lloris from close range. And shortly after, Parker produced a typically brave block to deny to Wickham from 20 yards.
We finished the half on top though and there was an air of expectation when Huddlestone was upended on 39 minutes by James McClean and the referee awarded a free-kick in Bale territory. This time though, while he hit the target, it lacked power and Mignolet punched clear. On the stroke of half-time, Clint Dempsey tried his luck from distance, but again it was saved.
We were immediately on the front foot after the restart, Benoit Assou-Ekotto skipping clear down the left, Bale met his cross but his shot was blocked. The rebound was collected by Aaron Lennon, but his left foot drive drifted wide of the post.
Just three minutes later Sunderland went close again. Huddlestone was caught in possession by Wickham, he found Graham who got away from Michael Dawson and hit a left foot shot which Lloris saved well diving to his left and Vertonghen cleared the rebound.
We had further shouts for a penalty shortly afterwards when Carlos Cuellar appeared to block Huddlestone’s shot with his hand, Bale then tested Mignolet again with another free-kick and Huddlestone fired over Vertonghen’s shot was blocked as we turned up the pressure.
Somehow the ball still wouldn’t go in after an almighty scramble on 63 minutes. First Parker’s shot was saved on the line by Colback and from the rebound, Lennon fired goalwards but incredibly Colback’s toe diverted the ball onto the post and away to safety.
And a minute later, we had two more chances in quick succession, Mignolet saving Dawson’s header from a corner and Dempsey’s shot from the loose ball came off Vertonghen as both players went for the ball.
It really was one-way traffic as we pegged Sunderland back, but just couldn’t find the breakthrough as the Black Cats defended for their lives. Time and again, shots were blocked or saved and crosses were headed clear but we kept persevering, knowing just one chance could win the match.
And it looked like it might come when Bale latched onto Vertonghen’s raking long pass on 73 minutes, but Mignolet was out quick to deny him when he cut back onto his right foot.
On 74 minutes Sunderland were reduced to 10 men when David Vaughan fouled Lennon and received his second yellow card and the subsequent red. From the set-piece, Bale fired over from 30 yards.
With a man less, the visitors dropped deeper to protect their clean sheet making it even harder for us to break them down. Mousa Dembele, Jermain Defoe and Gylfi Sigurdsson were introduced into the fray to boost our attacking options and the chances kept coming, if not the golden one to break the deadlock.
Yet again Mignolet denied Bale with a low save, Huddlestone’s fierce drive was deflected for a corner and Adebayor couldn’t keep his header down from the set-piece.
But then came the goal…and as it has done so many times this season, it came from the golden left boot of Bale in the 89th minute. In almost a carbon copy of his strike against Southampton here last time, he picked the ball up on the right flank, cut inside and just let fly. Mignolet might have denied him every other time this afternoon, but there was no stopping this one as it flew into the top corner.
That secured the points as the whistle blew just a couple of minutes later…a Bale match-winner a fitting end to a season in which he has been sublime and the team have provided numerous memorable moments.
Spurs (4-4-2): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen, Assou-Ekotto (Sigurdsson 84); Lennon, Huddlestone, Parker (Dembele 64), Dempsey (Defoe 73); Bale, Adebayor. Substitutes (not used): Friedel, Naughton, Caulker, Holtby.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Larsson, Cuellar, O’Shea, Colback; Johnson, N’Diaye, Vaughan, McClean (Knott 73); Graham (Mandron 74), Wickham (Mitchell 88). Substitutes (not used): Westwood, Marrs, Ferguson, Harrison, Mitchell.
Goal: Spurs - Bale (88)
Yellows: Spurs – Bale; Sunderland – McClean, Vaughan, Mandron
Red: Sunderland – Vaughan.
Referee: Andre Marriner.
Venue: White Hart Lane, London