He was last to leave the pitch, hugged by his smiling manager, Andre Villas-Boas, who must give thanks every night that Gareth Bale is in his team.
As so often this season it was the Welshman who made the difference for Tottenham yesterday, striking five minutes from the end of a match that was heading for a stalemate that would have done grave damage to their Champions’ League hopes. Instead Spurs will go to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday still believing that they can finish in the top four.
Bale’s trademark goal, lashed in from 20 yards after cutting in off the right flank, was hard on Southampton who until then had denied Tottenham a single shot on target. With results elsewhere going against them Saints continue to fret about relegation.
Their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, had said before the game that Spurs were not a one-man team. “Perhaps I made a mistake,” he said afterwards. “It was a moment of magic from someone who is in the top ten in the world. Bale could play for any team.”
The Argentine’s praise was echoed by compatriot Ricky Villa, scorer of one of Tottenham’s most famous goals, who was at White Hart Lane. “He is one of the best,” said Villa of Bale. “I believe Glenn Hoddle was a really great player, but Bale is younger and can improve and I expect him to become one of the top players in the world.”
“He is scoring goals out of nowhere,” said Villas-Boas of Bale. The Spurs’ manager added: “It was about winning and we managed to get a result. We deserved to be down at half time, but in the end I think we got what we deserved through a great moment of individual brilliance.”
Kick-off was put back by traffic congestion, hardly unusual around the Tottenham High Road but in this case relating to the M25. Since Spurs have not won a home Saturday 3pm kick-off since 2011 this prompted conspiracy theories but the statistic is unsurprising given Spurs have only played four home matches at the traditional time this season.
The delay enabled fans to see highlights of the recent match against Manchester City, a victory inspired by Bale. In the intervening fortnight Bale had won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award and the players’ version.
Once of Saints but making his 200th appearance for Spurs yesterday he took up his now customary position off the striker. However, so well did Steven Davis and Jack Cork block the service to the Welshman he was switched before half-time to the left flank, Clint Dempsey coming inside. There he found himself up against that rarest of creatures, a defender who can match him for pace. The one time he set off on a run Nathaniel Clyne caught and dispossessed him.
With Aaron Lennon, back after injury but not match-sharp, making little headway on the right Spurs struggled to convert territory into chances. Not that Saints were much more penetrative. These teams are coached by two of the youngest managers in the game, both Continental technocrats. Between them they delivered a match which was full of movement, quick, short ground passing, pressing and structure but, unfortunately, not a lot of action.
It was not until the 36th minute that either goalkeeper was tested, though Clyne, released by Rickie Lambert, should have stretched Hugo Lloris after 10minutes but shot wide. Finally Lloris was called into action turning Lambert’s free-kick against the post and gathering Davis’ header in the aftermath.
By then Spurs had lost Moussa Dembélé, who limped off with a tight hamstring and Lewis Holtby came on. The change did little to affect the pattern of the match so Villas-Boas worked though his options. Emmanuel Adebayor came on to form a front two with Jermain Defoe. He immediately laid off Tom Huddlestone’s chip with a delicate touch only for Dempsey to blaze over. The American was soon replaced by Gylfi Siggurdsson and Bale went to the right wing.
When Harry Redknapp played Bale there Spurs fans responded with chants of “he plays on the left” but the switch worked. Even before he scored Bale should have had a penalty when his speed enabled him to beat Cork to a loose ball only for the midfielder to kick him as he made to clear. Mark Clattenburg however, waved play on leaving Spurs waiting for their first penalty of the season.
No matter. Three minutes later Bale picked up the ball on the right, drifted across Luke Shaw into space created by a good run by Holtby, and whipped a left foot shot inside Artur Boruc’s far post. The goal made him the first Tottenham player since Jürgen Klinsmann 18 years ago to score 20 League goals in a season. The German’s goals only earned Spurs seventh place and he left in the summer. Spurs are praying Bale helps them go three places better, and stays to enjoy the reward.
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen, Assou-Ekotto; Huddlestone, Dembélé (Holtby, 35), Lennon, (Adebayor, 60); Bale, Dempsey (Sigurdsson, 72); Defoe.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Fonte, Hooiveld, Shaw; Cork, Davis; Do Prado (Mayuka, 65), Rodriguez, Lallana (Puncheon, 80); Lambert.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Bale (Tottenham)
Match rating: 6/10