Going down was high on the agenda here but Tottenham’s rise under Andre Villas-Boas continued with a victory which lifted Spurs up to third in the Premier League.
Two goals inside three minutes early in the second half – the first a Carlos Cuellar own goal and the second, a neat finish from Aaron Lennon – did the damage on a Sunderland team buoyed by a Boxing Day win over Manchester City.
But Tottenham’s success on Wearside arrived at a cost, with their winger Gareth Bale furious to have been handed a fifth caution of the season, triggering a one-match ban.
The referee, Martin Atkinson, deemed the Welshman dived in the penalty box with nine minutes remaining when there was slight contact with Craig Gardner, the Sunderland right-back.
It was Bale’s third booking for diving in his last five matches. He said: “It’s the same thing every time. It’s the third time I’ve been clipped this season and I’ve been booked for no reason again. It’s one of those things. There’s nothing I can do about it. Referees have to look closer I think.
“It’s not something I’m doing, it’s people thinking I’m diving when there is actually contact. At the end of the day if there is contact then it’s a penalty or free-kick. If there is contact and I fall over, what am I expected to do, hit my head on the floor?”
Villas-Boas defended his player. The Tottenham manager said: “It’s a big mistake from the referee you know, sometimes reputations are created unfairly in the media and it’s a bit unfair.
“It’s extremely unfair he misses the Reading game for such a big mistake. It looks like persecution this time. Jermain Defoe did a dive in the first half and the referee didn’t do anything.”
By the time Bale had been booked, Tottenham were already well on their way to a sixth League win from eight matches. It was the manner in which they fought back that proved most impressive.
Despite the threats from the Tottenham flanks and a couple of good chances for Emmanuel Adebayor – the best of which was when he hit the bar from six yards –Sunderland took the lead five minutes before half-time.
The Swedish winger, Seb Larsson, floated a free-kick into a crowded penalty area and, Tottenham’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made an outstanding instinctive stop to deny Steven Fletcher. The loose ball dropped invitingly for John O’Shea, who made the most of the space in front of him to side-foot over the line.
It was O’Shea’s first goal for more than three years and was harsh on Lloris, who illustrated the quality which has helped him keep four clean sheets in his previous five matches.
But Sunderland’s celebrations were short-lived. Less than five minutes in to the second half, Villas-Boas had gone from having a look of frustration to one of satisfaction.
After Cuellar had flicked Kyle Walker’s corner into his own net shortly after the restart with a powerful header, Tottenham soon added a second.
Lennon got lucky when his first touch bounced off Matt Kilgallon and dropped back in to his path. The England winger then knocked the ball around O’Shea before side-footing inside Simon Mignolet’s left post.
Despite the obvious disappointment of missing out on a fourth win from five matches, Sunderland’s manager Martin O’Neill thinks Tottenham have every chance of holding on to a Champions’ League spot.
“Spurs have got great talent within that squad. They have the capabilities of staying there,” said O’Neill, who revealed Villas-Boas has told him he can keep on-loan full-back Danny Rose for the rest of the season. “Manchester City and Manchester United have opened up a bit of a gap, but they are capable of breaking in to the top four.”
Tottenham could have won by more had it not been for Mignolet’s excellence in the Sunderland goal. The pick of his saves was from Defoe’s close-range strike after Bale’s bursting run in to the box.
Sunderland’s Belgian goalkeeper also charged off his line to stop Adebayor as O’Neill finished the game with four strikers on the pitch and two wingers in the hope of clawing back a point.
Villas-Boas said: “It was a brilliant game, we played some very good football. We didn’t deserve to go a goal down in the first half because we played very well. We just couldn’t get the ball in the net. We told them to keep going, we always felt one goal would get us back in it. We scored a second and had good chances to get a third.”
Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Gardner, O’Shea (Bramble, 68), Cuellar, Kilgallon (Campbell, 62); Johnson, Larsson (Wickham, 80); Colback, McClean, Sessègnon; Fletcher.
Tottenham (4-4-2): Lloris; Walker, Caulker, Dawson, Naughton; Lennon (Parker, 83), Sandro, Dembélé, Bale (Sigurdsson, 90); Adebayor, Defoe (Dempsey, 75).
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Lennon (Tottenham)
Match rating: 6/10