Gérard Houllier, presumably buoyed by Liverpool's recent ascendancy, had declared defiantly in the prelude to this contest: "Liverpool will win the championship. It's just a matter of time." Afterwards, his words contained about as much resonance as Iain Duncan Smith's declaration that he could overcome a Conservative leadership challenge. IDS is a Spurs fan and the man who deposed him, Michael Howard, is a self-styled Liverpool aficionado and reportedly one who advocates the replacement of Houllier with Martin O'Neill. Howard was here yesterday in the directors' box, and must have been as disturbed as the remainder of the visiting faithful by the manner of their team's capitulation.
True, they finished with a flourish after Harry Kewell's scintillating goal injected optimism in Liverpool hearts, and an official other than Uriah Rennie may have yielded to last-minute penalty claims after Gary Doherty laid hand on ball - "a definite penalty. It was deliberate handball," claimed Houllier - but taken overall this was an insipid performance from Liverpool following a three-game sequence of victories. The oft-ridiculed defender Igor Biscan bore a degree of culpability for Tottenham's goals, but as Houllier emphasised, scathingly, by his usual standards: "This was not a performance we're proud of. There's no hiding behind the facts. It was not one player. It was the whole team."
While "poor defending judgement", as the manager put it, contributed to the loss, the fact that Tottenham goalkeeper Kasey Keller was so under-employed is an indictment of Liverpool's failure to fashion openings for Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, although much is attributable to a stubborn rearguard action with sterling performances from captain Stephen Carr and Anthony Gardner in particular.
Owen looked a disconsolate figure at times during a match in which Steven Gerrard was a significant absentee, and the chances of the England striker remaining at Anfield in the long term must be receding. Champions' League qualification remains a crucial issue for Owen, and this result in conjunction with fourth-placed Charlton's victory at Everton did Liverpool no favours.
Spurs may have discovered a new seam of form themselves - this being their fourth successive victory - but David Pleat's men are scarcely one of the League's big-hitters. However, the North London side have a renewed faith in themselves, and Robbie Keane's penalty and a first Premiership goal from - wait for it - Helder Postiga gave them a decisive two-goal advantage by early in the second half. "I can only compliment our players," said acting manager Pleat. "We relied on those horrible words: attitude, determination and a little bit of spoiling, plus some football."
In the opening minutes, Owen's smart volley, though just wide, served notice of his presence. Then Postiga tested the reactions of on-loan Paul Jones with a venomous drive. But it was Keane who constantly troubled the visitors' rearguard. Midway through the first half, Gardner found the Irishman with an exquisite ball. Keane was on it like a hare, and Biscan, in his wake, appeared to clip him in the area. Keane converted the spot-kick.
The immediate response from Liverpool was not auspicious. Kewell exhibited moments of quality on the right, and whipped in some inviting crosses, but there was no end product as the home defence stood firm, with midfielder Michael Brown, signed from Sheffield United for £500,000 and making his debut, well in evidence.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the revitalisation of Tottenham has occurred since the return from long-term injury of Welsh international Simon Davies. Such a bonus has been negated to a significant degree by the departure of Frédéric Kanouté to his adopted country Mali for the African Nations' Cup, although his probable six-game absence at least offered the £6m Postiga the chance finally to establish himself.
Nine minutes after the break, the home-produced substitute Johnnie Jackson struck an astute ball forward for Postiga, allowing the Portuguese forward to elude Biscan and beat Jones. The scorer wore the expression of a man who could scarcely believe his what he had just achieved. It was his first Premiership goal - at the 17th time of trying.
A splendid individual effort from Kewell reduced the arrears. The former Leeds man seized on a ball in midfield and totally bemused the home defence as he cut in and drove the ball left-footed past Keller. It was the midfielder's ninth goal of the season, making him joint leading scorer with Owen. It was the spur Liverpool required, but their hosts held on.
Beforehand, Houllier had spoken of a recent phone conversation with Martin O'Neill, whom the Liverpool manager Houllier had accused of refusing to deny rumours regarding his job. "I don't think the speculation about him and my job will come back again," the Liverpool manager had insisted confidently.
After this, he'd better not believe it.
Tottenham Hotspur 2
Keane pen 25, Postiga 54
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 36,104