Sunderland 1 Tottenham 2
Only a few months ago Andre Villas-Boas was struggling to restore a reputation battered by his time at Chelsea, his future was in doubt and his methods were being questioned.
After six wins from eight Premier League matches Tottenham can now head into the new year in a Champions League place.
Whatever Villas-Boas has been doing at White Hart Lane in his first season has worked and those benefiting from his coaching techniques are starting to believe they can catch the runaway Manchester rivals for the top-flight crown.
It is fanciful to consider Tottenham, however good their run of form is, stand a chance of closing the 13-point gap to leaders Manchester United in the second half of the season. On the evidence of their sixth away win so far, though, they have a shown a dogged determination to grind out results.
Rather than collapse in the Wearside rain when Waterford’s John O’Shea stroked Sunderland ahead five minutes before half-time, Tottenham regrouped. Angry words were exchanged and within five minutes of the restart they took the lead.
The goals might have been the result calamitous defending, an own goal from Carlos Cuellar while Aaron Lennon capitalised on Matt Kilgallon’s mistake for the second. Either way there was a desire to suggest it was all about returning to North London with maximum points.
Brazilian Sandro, who bossed the midfield again by breaking up Sunderland’s play, thinks it is time for people to take Tottenham more seriously.
“We have won a hard game at Sunderland and Manchester City could not beat them here on Boxing Day,” said Sandro. “We can go for the top. Why not Spurs at the top this season? We have a good coach, a good squad and everything is working well.
“Nobody is speaking about Spurs. That suits us. But we are not content to just be a top-four side. We are looking up the table — not down. I hope it carries on with nobody talking about Spurs as champions right until the end of the season. Then bang, we win. They will all be talking about Tottenham then. We believe we are as good as the top teams.”
Villas-Boas, who learned about the need to play down expectations when he was sacked for under-achieving at Stamford Bridge, is not predicting a title shot.
“The Champions League is the objective of the club. It’s not something that we need to get this first year, we’re still rebuilding a team that lost very, very important players, but that’s what makes us tick that’s for sure.”
With Gareth Bale — left furious after picking up a fifth booking for diving when he was clipped by Craig Gardner — and Lennon providing the power and pace down the flanks in support of strikers Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe, Tottenham have one of the most feared forward lines around.
But while Lennon’s winner sealed the points the display of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was equally important.
When Sunderland pumped balls in to the box for Steven Fletcher, the £8m Frenchman’s decision making was always of the highest standard, regularly punching clear. Even when he was beaten by O’Shea, Lloris had initially made an outstanding point blank stop to deny Fletcher in the build up.
“It was a big, big performance from him, with difficult balls going into the box, a proper English fixture, a difficult team to beat, strong in the air, big players and I think he handled it fantastically well, coming out for every cross,” Villas-Boas said.
Tottenham’s competence led to disappointment for Sunderland. After the euphoria of defeating the champions three days earlier, the Black Cats ended the year in defeat ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Liverpool.
Full-back Danny Rose, ineligible to face parent club Tottenham because of the terms of his season-long loan, will return at Anfield and Villas-Boas has told Sunderland he wants him back next summer.
SUNDERLAND (4-2-3-1): Mignolet 8; Gardner 6, O’Shea 6 (Bramble 68, 5), Cuellar 4, Kilgallon 4 (Campbell 62, 5); Johnson 6, Larsson 7 (Wickham 80), Colback 6, McClean 7; Sessegnon 7, Fletcher 6.
TOTTENHAM (4-4-2): Lloris 8; Walker 5, Caulker 6, Dawson 6, Naughton 7; Lennon 8 (Parker 83), Sandro 7, Dembele 7, Bale 8 (Sigurdsson 90); Adebayor 6, Defoe 6 (Dempsey 75).
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
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