Merry Christmas? Not for Steve Bruce, whose chances of lifting Birmingham City out of the Premiership's bottom three evaporated in the space of nine controversial minutes at White Hart Lane yesterday. Having had the better of the first hour, his team went behind to a disputed penalty and had their hopes of a comeback dashed when Phil Dowd dismissed Muzzy Izzet for diving.
The decisions infuriated Bruce, who claimed that Robbie Keane "threw himself to the ground" after 56 minutes under Matthew Upson's challenge. Dowd, who appeared to be well placed to judge, pointed to the spot and Keane sent Maik Taylor the wrong way to score his fourth goal in five Premiership games.
Confirmation that it would not be Birmingham's day quickly followed. Izzet, unluckily booked in the first half for an innocuous foul on Keane, raced into the penalty area and fell to the ground. There appeared to be no contact from any Tottenham defenders and Dowd sent Izzet off after showing him his second yellow card. Bruce said that the referee "couldn't wait to get his red card out of his pocket".
If Bruce's complaints about the refereeing were harsh, his frustration was understandable after his team had begun a holiday programme featuring four games against opponents in the Premiership's top six - Manchester United, Chelsea and Wigan are next up - in promising style.
Having been lambasted by their manager after a poor showing at Manchester City, Birmingham played with confidence and assurance. Neil Kilkenny and Izzet dominated the midfield, Jermaine Pennant was a handful and Jiri Jarosik's inventiveness posed a constant problem.
Bruce's team, however, have scored only 11 goals in 17 Premiership matches and their lack of a cutting edge was demonstrated by a series of missed half-chances. Paul Robinson denied Jarosik, who also went close with a header and set up an opportunity for Emile Heskey, who headed wide at the far post. Early in the second half Julian Gray shot at Robinson when clear 10 yards out and Mido headed Upson's effort from the subsequent corner off the line.
With Martin Taylor a tower of strength in Birmingham's defence, Tottenham had made few inroads until the game's turning points. Their football rarely flowed, Michael Carrick and Jermaine Jenas were quiet in midfield and Keane and Mido ineffective up front.
After the penalty, however, Keane and Jermaine Defoe might both have scored and Birmingham's misery was completed in injury time. Defoe, on as a substitute, raced clear as Birmingham pushed forward and lashed in a shot from 15 yards to complete a third successive home win for Tottenham against teams from the bottom three.
"There was nothing wrong with our spirit, attitude and commitment," Bruce said. "That was as good as we have played for a long time, but you can't come somewhere like Tottenham, create four or five chances and not take them."
It may have been an off day for Tottenham, but the victory underlined their best start to a Premiership season. This is the first Christmas for 10 years in which they are higher than Arsenal in the table and a Champions' League place is now clearly in their sights.
Chris Hughton, the assistant manager, agreed that his team had not been at their best here but added: "The pleasing thing from our point of view is that we know we can play better but we've still won the game."
Goals: Keane pen (58) 1-0; Defoe (90) 2-0.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Stalteri, Dawson, King (Pamarot, 68), Young-Pyo; Lennon (Defoe, 59), Jenas, Carrick, Davids; Keane (Brown, 73), Mido. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Rasiak.
Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Maik Taylor; Cunningham, Martin Taylor, Upson, Lazaridis (Dunn, 73); Pennant (Pandiani, 83), Izzet, Kilkenny, Gray; Jarosik; Heskey. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Dunn, Butt, Clemence.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Tottenham: Stalteri, Carrick, Pamarot.
Sent off: Birmingham: Izzet.
Man of the match: Martin Taylor.
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