Tottenham Hotspur missed out on a Champions League place again despite Gareth Bale’s stunning winner against Sunderland in a 1-0 success, meaning North London rivals Arsenal finish fourth.
Despite controlling the game from kick off, Andre Villas-Boas’s side could not find a way past a packed Sunderland defence, which was superbly marshalled by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Tottenham also had three penalty appeals waved away, two correctly, although one of them should have been a free-kick and not a booking for diving for Gareth Bale, while another was a clear handball by Carlos Cuellar that Andre Marriner somehow missed.
They also hit the woodwork, had efforts cleared off the line and spurned several opportunities as Sunderland somehow clung on.
With time running out Bale hit a long-range thunderbolt to ensure Spurs claimed victory, but Newcastle’s 1-0 defeat at home to Arsenal meant the Gunners qualify for the Champions League qualifying round.
The big question now is whether Spurs can keep talismanic Wales star Bale, whose 21st Premier League goal of the season was in keeping with his generally-brilliant form.
Bale would grace any side in world football, but until his late intervention he had been ordinary by his elevated standards.
The win was deserved as Spurs completely dominated Sunderland, who did carve out a few half-chances on the break but were only kept in it by some huge strokes of fortune, and excellent goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet.
Much of Sunderland’s luck came down to referee Andre Marriner, who booked Bale for diving when he could have sent off Sebastian Larsson for a cynical tug on the edge of the box. Marriner also failed to spot two handballs in the Black Cats box, one by the otherwise exceptional Jack Colback, and a clear-cut manual block by Carlos Cuellar.
Midfielders Colback and Larsson were playing as makeshift full-backs due to Danny Rose’s ineligibility and Phil Bardsley’s disciplinary meltdown, and both were excellent as part of a deep-lying defence that mostly frustrated Spurs, who racked up nearly 70% possession.
Mignolet also made a succession of good saves and showed impeccable handling, although the most heroic interceptions of the day were Colback’s, who blocked a Scott Parker finish on the line before turning Aaron Lennon’s follow-up on to the post.
Sunderland, for their part, had a couple of half-chances on the break as Hugo Lloris saved well from bustling strike duo Connor Wickham and Danny Graham, with the latter extending his goalless streak to 16 matches.
Their difficulties amplified when midfielder David Vaughan, already booked, was dismissed for a lunge on Aaron Lennon, reducing the visitors to 10 men for the final quarter-hour.
Up stepped Bale who, having failed to impress with his trademark free-kicks, more than made up from open play as he fired a curling effort inside the top left from 25 yards.
It was some strike but Spurs had always been dependent on Arsenal flopping at Newcastle, with the Gunners running out 1-0 winners against a much-improved Newcastle side.
That condemned Villas-Boas to a second season in the Europa League, but Spurs’ improvement has been tangible under the Portuguese following their terrible slump at the end of last season, and with management upheaval at several top-end clubs the North Londoners could contend next time out.
But they need to hang on to Bale first, which will be no mean feat after yet more last-gasp heroics from the division’s top player.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Jack Colback (Sunderland) – Played superbly at left-back as Sunderland mostly frustrated Spurs. With Danny Rose set to return to the North London club, he could have a career at that position.
SPURS: Lloris 7, Walker 7, Dawson 7, Vertonghen 7, Assou-Ekotto 6; Lennon 7, Huddlestone 7, Parker 7, Dempsey 6; Adebayor 7, Bale 7; Subs: Dembele 6, Defoe 6, Sigurdsson N/A
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 8, Larsson 7, Colback 8, O'Shea 7, Cuellar 7, N'Diaye 6, Vaughan 6, McClean 6, Johnson 5, Graham 6, Wickham 7; Subs: Mandron 5, Knott 6, Mitchell N/A