Outplayed throughout a dull first half, they had the better of the second, but fell behind to Defoe's characteristic run and shot soon after the interval. An appalling error by Middlesbrough's goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer not only gave Mido a second goal but carried Spurs to the top of the fledgling League table - the first time in three years they have flown so high.
A visit next Saturday from Chelsea, Spurs' bogey team and the last visitors to win here, will provide a better test of the progress so far but there are encouraging signs, as long as Martin Jol can settle on his best team and give them the opportunity to bed down. He revealed last night that Wayne Routledge, the gifted little winger from Crystal Palace, will be missing for a matter of months rather than weeks, which leaves an awkward hole on the right of midfield now Simon Davies has left. The Finn Teemu Tainio was shifted there yesterday to accommodate Davids and understandably showed his best touches when moving inside.
But while there is Defoe, who was upset at being taken off after 45 minutes in Copenhagen last Wednesday, there is always hope of a goal at any time. As McClaren well knows from England training sessions, it can be fatal to let him pick up the ball and run. The experienced Gareth Southgate knew it too, but was still powerless to intervene when the striker collected Tainio's pass in the centre circle shortly after half-time, veered sharply to his right and let fly a screaming shot from 25 yards that Schwarzer was not even close to reaching.
It was only right that Tottenham should be ahead at that stage. The large number of absent friends in Middlesbrough's defence suggested that their approach might be more attritional than ever and so it proved. McClaren, who tends to escape remarkably lightly from the fall-out of England débâcles, had admitted that his team needed more support and creativity from the midfield for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Aiyegbeni Yakubu. There was no great sign of it for a long time and the Boro manager was a much more animated figure than in midweek, regularly striding into the technical area to berate his men.
"Boring, boring Boro" was the chant at half-time as the teams left the pitch, whereupon the manager made two changes, James Morrison and Mark Viduka replacing the injured Yakubu and the anonymous Gaizka Mendieta. Spurs followers had been more impressed with their side's approach, at least as far as the penalty area. Davids, spotted working hard the previous evening in a Canary Wharf gym, had proved sufficiently fit for a first Premiership start, and quickly endeared himself to the locals - not only by dumping the former Arsenal man Ray Parlour on the floor.
Carrick's fizzing drive from 25 yards was the nearest thing to a goal in the opening half, as well as rounding off the neatest move, which had flowed from Davids' pass to Tainio for a clever back-heel. Other than that and Defoe's shot straight at Schwarzer, there was little to enthuse anyone.
That all changed, mercifully, in the fourth minute of the second half, thanks to Defoe's goal. Unexpectedly, it enlivened the visitors at last, with Viduka looking something like the forceful striker of old. His first touch had been to flick on Matthew Bates' free-kick for Hasselbaink, who lobbed over the bar under pressure. A better effort soon came from Stewart Downing, forcing Robinson into his first save of the afternoon on 53 minutes. Then George Boateng found Viduka on the edge of the penalty area and was allowed to continue his run unchecked, meeting the return pass and chipping on to the roof of the net.
Viduka had added life and movement to the attack, and his strong 20-yard drive also caused the England goalkeeper some anxiety before clearing the crossbar. Davids, tiring, was unable to subdue the increasingly influential Boateng, and resorted to clattering him late enough to earn a yellow card but without preventing his compatriot finding Viduka, whose pass left Downing briefly clear on goal. He should have equalised, but shot too high.
The whole tone of the game had changed, but it did so again in absurd fashion 15 minutes from the end. Defoe fed Mido on a rare Tottenham break and with Carrick unmarked in the centre and screaming for a pass, the Egyptian hit a weak pot-shot that went through Frank Queudrue's legs and squirmed right under Schwarzer's body. There was much squirming in the visitors' ranks, too, and Robinson even denied them the chance of a fighting finish with a fine save from Hasselbaink's free-kick.
"Everybody knows Middlesbrough are very difficult to break down," said Tottenham's impressive manager. "Edgar Davids played like a hero and we were aggressive and ambitious. So I'm a happy man." McClaren, "very aggrieved and angry with the result", looked anything but.
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