FOR the second Sunday running, Sunderland were pushing for a late goal.
But whereas Sebastian Larsson’s strike against Blackburn Rovers was just reward for a dominant display, a White Hart Lane equaliser would only have punished Tottenham Hotspur’s failure to finish off outclassed opponents.
Despite a couple of late minutes of kitchen-sink football, the equaliser never came. Sunderland could take some heart from keeping classy opponents at arm’s length for so long, but it was outweighed by the fact they offered the helping hand which decided the contest, courtesy of another Wes Brown error.
Both clubs have lavished eye-watering amounts of money on their squads in the last five years. Spurs have invested in a squad with genuine title pretensions, but Ellis Short’s cash has largely been squandered.
Martin O’Neill may find he pays the price when the elephant in the room – his January transfer war chest – comes up in conversation with the Texan.
For an hour at least, the Irishman (pictured below) demonstrated he is capable of making do and mending a threadbare squad.
But as if to demonstrate their greater resources, a Spurs side missing Gareth Bale conjured the winner from a substitute, Roman Pavlyuchenko.
O’Neill has spoken of his admiration for Barcelona, and in trying to mimic them he has started with pressing high up the pitch.
It made a couple of early backpasses more awkward than they should have been for Brad Friedel, but with all their recent European experience, Harry Redknapp’s men are comfortable with close attention and patient in possession.
Their relaxed demeanour would be a feature of the afternoon.
Brown was given an early warning of what was to come when Rafael van der Vaart pounced as he tried to bring the ball out from the back.
It eventually found its way to Benoit Assou-Ekotto at the back of the penalty area, but van der Vaart stabbed the full-back’s shot wide. Twice in quick succession, Sandro found space but not the net.
With Spurs waiting for rather than forcing an opportunity, the Wearsiders grew into the game.
Aaron Lennon’s twanged hamstring – an occupational hazard for speedy wingers in the cold temperatures – forced a change of shape from the hosts, and chances began to fall to the Black Cats.
In the 31st minute came a rare occurrence – some support for striker Connor Wickham.
He laid the ball back to Kieran Richardson, who cut onto his right, but produced a weak shot Friedel dropped onto.
When Stephane Sessegnon released Sebastian Larsson, the cross went behind Richardson, and a glorious opportunity was wasted.
A knee injury to Wickham which eventually forced him to be replaced with Nicklas Bendtner at half-time reduced Sunderland’s momentum, and Spurs finished the half with its best chance. Keiren Westwood’s timid response to a Scott Parker cross provided Lennon’s replacement, Pavlyuchenko, with a 45th-minute tap-in, but the Russian poked wide.
Greater Spurs energy made the second half more open and entertaining – two things O’Neill could have done without.
David Vaughan, from distance, forced the first save of the half, but for the most part the play headed in the opposite direction.
Van der Vaart’s shot deflected for a corner and Emmanuel Adebayor could not quite get above Assou-Ekotto’s cross. When Richardson threaded a lovely pass to him in the area, Jack Colback turned into the formidable Sandro.
Defensively, Brown’s confidence is very low after an impressive start to his Stadium of Light career.
The centre-back was as jittery as his partner Titus Bramble was assured, and eventually his side paid the price.
Parker latched onto a loose pass and fed van der Vaart, whose exquisite reverse ball picked out Pavlyuchenko. This time the striker found his spot.
With half an hour left, Spurs began to dominate but their determination to score the perfect goal allowed Sunderland to stay in the game.
When van der Vaart produced another brilliant reverse pass Westwood’s save from Adebayor presented a gift-wrapped Chistmas present to Luka Modric. The Croat shot over the empty net. Van der Vaart shot straight at Westwood and when Kyle Walker showed disdain for his team-mates’ over-playing by thumping a shot, it thudded into the advertising hoardings.
Van der Vaart’s free-kick hit a red-and-white wall, Westwood saved with his chest from Adebayor, and Pavlyuchenko was just wide from the edge of the area.
Redknapp was confident enough to call his Europa League boys from the bench, but with such a flimsy cushion, Spurs were never totally comfortable.
Sunderland, though, lack the ruthlessness to punish profligacy and a final five minutes of huffing and puffing brought little of significance bar Bendtner’s volley, off balance, from a one-two with Sessegnon.
Unlike their next three fixtures, trips to White Hart Lane are not games Sunderland should be targeting for points.
But in their perilous position, they cannot afford to be too picky about where they get them.