In the end it was merely the most thrilling consolation goal you will ever see. After 90 minutes of endless, implausible assault and painful frustration in futile pursuit of fourth place, Gareth Bale did what he has done all season: deliver decisively with remarkable quality and timing, cutting in from 25 yards out and rifling the ball into the far top corner. It was the goal that won the game, and in any other match it would have been celebrated raucously. But Arsenal were seeing out their 1-0 win at Newcastle, which left them on 73 points and safe in the final Champions League spot.
In another game, in another season, this win, and 72 points, would have been enough. But this – Spurs’ highest Premier League total – left them one painful point behind Arsenal, stranded in fifth and consigned to another year of Europa League football. Andre Villas-Boas insisted that it is a “wonderful competition”, but there was no mistaking deflation mixed with pride yesterday afternoon.
There were wry smiles on the players’ faces as they walked off at the end, and back on to the pitch with their children for the lap of honour. Clearly this has been a good season for Spurs – the fans loudly sang “AVB’s blue and white army” even once fifth was confirmed – but, for this year, with Arsenal and Chelsea both raising the pace in the final months and just stepping away from Spurs, good is not quite enough.
“It’s a bit disappointing,” said Villas-Boas in his press conference after the lap was done. “Obviously we would ideally have achieved fourth, we certainly did enough to deserve it, but we didn’t in the end.”
Everyone at Tottenham will hope desperately that even without Champions League football they can keep hold of Bale this summer. It was fitting that Spurs’ last game should be like this – decided by Bale with comic-book explosive quality after he had led the charge all afternoon.
Spurs forced a heroic performance from Simon Mignolet and had two of the season’s most obvious penalties turned down by Andre Marriner. After 20 minutes Tom Huddlestone slid Bale through the inside-left channel. He outpaced Larrson, who pushed him in the back and he went down. It was a foul and a penalty but Marriner decided otherwise, booking Bale for diving, his fifth such yellow card of the season.
In the second half Carlos Cuellar, like a schoolboy momentarily deciding he was in goal, saved Emmaneul Adebayor’s shot with his arms, but again Marriner gave nothing.
These two incidents both occurred before Arsenal went ahead, and Villas-Boas said that a Spurs lead might well have influenced events at St James’ Park.
The manager said: “It would be absolutely decisive, in a fixture where emotions are felt very, very strongly – despite the distance between the two grounds, and we would obviously have to score it, but it would certainly be felt at Newcastle. It was a disappointing decision, it could have changed the nature of the other game.”
But Mariner said no, Spurs stayed at 0-0, Arsenal went ahead and the atmosphere at White Hart Lane was never the same again. There was one false roar, soon after, wrongly thinking that Newcastle had equalised, but as the sad truth slowly reasserted itself around the ground the volume dropped.
Before then, for the first hour, there had been a growing buzz as Spurs tore into Sunderland. It was always predicted that they were going to dominate possession and so they did against a team lacking in players and motivation.
Sunderland had two midfielders – Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson – in defence and the extent of their ambition was to hold their shape and hope for the best.
Spurs sped up as the half went on, after the first penalty denial, and started to work Mignolet. He had to stop Huddlestone’s 20-yard half-volley, Bale’s 35-yard dipping free-kick and a soft shot from the edge of the box from Clint Dempsey.
Bale then hit a powerful shot at Colback and there were more than a few crosses which somehow evaded every white shirt in the box.
Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris had to block Connor Wickham’s near-post shot from Danny Graham’s pass, but it was a one-sided first half and the barrage continued after the break. The second screamingly blatant penalty was turned down and the bad news broke from Newcastle but Tottenham continued to push for their 21st league win of the season.
Dempsey headed wide from a corner and Colback, taking to his new defensive role, made two successive blocks on the line from Aaron Lennon and Scott Parker.
Michael Dawson’s header was the next to stretch Mignolet, who then had to use his legs to deny Bale from close range, dive to keep out Kyle Walker’s 20-yarder and then yet another effort from Bale. David Vaughan was sent off for a second yellow card.
Eventually, yet again, Bale seized and settled the game in the last minute. He has been playing dream football all year but this was a sharp reminder of the facts of real life as well as of football: sometimes your best is not enough.