Tottenham have proved taking Europa seriously is the best way,' says Andre Villas-Boas

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Panathinaikos 1

White Hart Lane

It was a flawed performance, the sort that earlier in the season would have cost them the points. Spurs lacked tempo or control. But, thanks to two late goals from Clint Dempsey – later given as an Orestis Karnezis own goal – and Jermain Defoe, they won 3-1.

Games are breaking for Spurs right now. This was their fourth straight win, the first time they have done so since February 2011. Before this run they had won one in six. There is a new mood at White Hart Lane, and there will be knockout European football here in February.

Andre Villas-Boas is delighted. This is an important competition to him. He owes some of his reputation to winning it with Porto in 2011. Because Lazio won in Maribor, Spurs could not win Group J but they finished comfortably in second. Villas-Boas was understandably proud of balancing progress with Premier League success, in a way Liverpool and Newcastle United have not.

"I am extremely happy," the manager said. "It has been said that both competitions cannot be taken seriously but we have proven it is perfectly possible. We are very proud to be in the last 32 and to show that you can embrace it in a different way."

Having finished second, Spurs could face group winners Lyons or Fenerbahce, or one of the demoted Champions League sides – including Benfica – a practice Villas-Boas opposes. "I think it's extremely unfair," the Spurs manager said. "You can't give a bonus to teams who have failed. Teams fail in the Champions League and are promoted to the Europa League – it's a massive bonus."

Tottenham cannot draw Chelsea quite yet – Villas-Boas said they would be "two magnificent games", if they ever occurred – but they can take heart from the fact that, unlike their London rivals, they are collecting results.

Neither of Spurs' two best players and pace-setters, Gareth Bale and Mousa Dembélé, started tonight. There was a lack of tempo all evening, as a well-organised and competitive Panathinaikos side – who needed to win to knock Spurs out – frustrated the hosts.

Villas-Boas put his faith in his forwards, pairing Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor for just the third time this season. The last time they started together it led to 17 brilliant minutes at Arsenal before Adebayor's red card cost Spurs the derby. Last night there was no such drama and not much danger. Although Adebayor and Defoe both scored neither was influential.

Clint Dempsey, coming in from the left wing, was Spurs' best attacking player. It was Dempsey's perfect through pass to Adebayor which set up Spurs' first goal. With 14 minutes left it was Dempsey's header which went in via the cross bar and the goalkeeper's back.

"We are extremely satisfied with his recent performances," Villas-Boas said of Dempsey, who had not always looked like a natural Spurs player. "It's down to him, he has managed to turn the page and adapted to a new position. He attacks, he defends, he commits himself to the team."

In between those two moments it was an even game, and before Spurs went 2-1 up they had been tense. After Defoe hit the post, Zeca equalised early in the second half, escaping from Kyle Naughton and heading in Nikos Spyropoulos' cross. From then on, Panathinaikos were on top and Toche should have put them ahead when Jan Vertonghen and Steven Caulker collided in the box.

Sensing the anxiety, Villas-Boas turned to Dembélé from the bench. Spurs scored their second with their first action after the change. Seven minutes later, with seven minutes left, Defoe ended the game, chipping Karnezis from Aaron Lennon's pass.

Man of the match Dempsey.

Match rating 5/10.

Referee P Gil (Poland).

Attendance 32,554.

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