Aaron Lennon has cutting edge as Tottenham turn tables on Sunderland

At the final whistle, André Villas-Boas clenched both fists in a modest but heartfelt gesture of celebration. After that came a bear hug with his assistant, Steffen Freund, and an embrace for Scott Parker as Tottenham's manager headed towards the new year with a reputation shredded at Chelsea last season restored and his side seemingly set fair for Champions League qualification.

Spurs were good, at times very good, and, despite being much improved from a few weeks ago, Martin O'Neill will know his team could have suffered an appreciably heavier defeat at the hands of opponents who have won six of their past eight Premier League games.

"We played with a lot of heart and got ourselves in front," Sunderland's manager said. "But Tottenham are a very fine side indeed. André has done brilliantly."

Tottenham's manager could have done without Gareth Bale incurring a harsh-looking late yellow card for diving after a challenge by Craig Gardner which, being his fifth booking this season, means he misses Tuesday's home match against Reading. The winger has been booked for diving five times in the past two seasons, more than any other Premier League player.

"I've been clipped and booked for no reason again," Bale said. "There's nothing I can do, the referees need to look a bit closer. People think I'm diving when there's contact. If there's contact, what do you want me to do – hit my head on the floor? I have to put my hands down to protect myself. If people kick me, I'm going to go down."

If jeering Sunderland fans were relieved when Bale was withdrawn nine minutes from time, Spurs started deceptively slowly. Perhaps noting that Manchester City's lack of width played a big part in their struggles to get behind O'Neill's defence when Sunderland beat Roberto Mancini's side here on Boxing Day, Villas-Boas arranged Spurs in a 4-4-2 formation featuring Aaron Lennon and Bale wide.

While Sandro and Mousa Dembélé were strong enough to hold their own in central midfield, initially an unexpected problem lay with Lennon, who made little early impact down the visiting right against Matthew Kilgallon, Sunderland's left-back for the day in place of the ineligible Tottenham loanee Danny Rose.

Some exhilarating cameos from Bale served as a reminder that Gardner could never relax but the winger drifted in and out of things. Excelling in fits and starts Bale both excited the crowd and offered Sunderland too many chances to catch their collective breath and regroup.

On one occasion when Lennon dodged Kilgallon adroitly to direct a deft chip in Bale's direction, he headed disappointingly wide from 10 yards. With Emmanuel Adebayor hitting the bar with a shot from two yards out, Sunderland were living dangerously but took the lead five minutes before half-time. Kyle Walker's foul on Stéphane Sessègnon resulted in a free-kick delivered with vicious curl and dip by Sebastian Larsson. Extending a boot to connect with that superior delivery, Steven Fletcher forced Hugo Lloris, excellent throughout, into a fine save, only for John O'Shea to redirect the rebound home from six yards.

"We deserved to be 1-0 down," Villas-Boas said. "But we talked about how to change things at half-time." Tottenham's players heeded his homily and a combination of Walker's corner and the head of Sunderland's Carlos Cuéllar provided an equaliser. Lennon was growing into the game and when his ball ricocheted back off Kilgallon he took full advantage.

After knocking it past O'Shea, the winger sashayed around the defender, regaining possession before beating Simon Mignolet with an accomplished right-foot finish.

Despite Lloris saving Adam Johnson's 20-yard shot, Spurs were firmly in control and O'Neill attempted to alter the balance of power with a series of substitutions that resulted in his side virtually playing 4-2-4 and James McClean occupying a new central midfield role.

Although Spurs had further chances on the break, most notably involving Jermain Defoe and Adebayor, Villas-Boas was sufficiently anxious to replace Lennon with Parker.

Bale's yellow card following that controversial tumble – the pursuing Gardner appeared to block the winger's path with an arm, and knee-level contact looked to be made – had offered Sunderland unlikely hope.

"It was a bit unfair and a bad mistake but it was a consequence of Gareth's pace, his ability, his skill; it makes things very difficult for referees to judge," Villas-Boas said. "We want to take diving out of the game. But speed is difficult for referees to analyse and everybody can make a mistake."

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