It is the time of the season when the nerve ends are raw and the focus turns inwards. Tottenham Hotspur knew what they needed to do here. There was not a single soul connected to the club who considered this fixture as anything other than must-win. The season's final weeks will surely bring twists but it did not matter. Southampton had to be vanquished.
Thanks to Gareth Bale, who appears to be on a one-man mission to drag them into the Champions League, they got the job done. The team's performance was aimless in the first-half and not wildly better in the second; it was impossible to say that Southampton deserved to lose. André Villas-Boas conceded that the visitors ought to have been in front at half-time and they did not look like conceding in the second half.
Even Bale had not looked like scoring. Villas-Boas moved him from the centre to the left and then the right, as he grasped for the solution and, for 85 minutes, Tottenham's main man and, whisper it, their only hope, had been virtually anonymous. Southampton denied him the space wherever he tried to roam. They have hardly been imperious on home turf under Villas-Boas and their supporters had begun to steel themselves for frustration.
But Bale needs only a fleeting moment to be decisive and he found it when he picked up possession on the right wing and drifted inside, away from Luke Shaw. The shooting chance opened up and with a low left-foot drive from outside the penalty area, which flashed past Artur Boruc, he bent the script to his will. Tottenham can travel to Chelsea on Wednesday with renewed optimism.
It is the measure of Bale's influence that even on an off-day, there was no surprise and, perhaps, an element of inevitability about him turning into the matchwinner. This was his 200th game in Tottenham colours, it came against the club that had set him on the path to stardom and in the wake of his clean sweep of the Player of the Year awards.
"Maybe I made a mistake when I said that Tottenham were not a one-man team," said Mauricio Pochettino, the Southampton manager. "He is not yet at the level of Messi or Maradona but he could play for any team in the world."
It was Bale's 20th league goal of the season and he became the first Spur to reach the mark since Jurgen Klinsmann in 1994-95. In addition, he has five in the cups and five more for Wales. "Southampton gave him a split-second, which they had not done all game and he managed to put the ball in the net," Villas-Boas said. "He is scoring goals out of nothing. It was a great moment of individual brilliance. He is in outstanding form."
Tottenham had not won a Saturday 3pm league fixture here this season and there were conspiracy theories around when the kick-off was delayed by 30 minutes due to a chemical spillage on the M25. But Spurs looked laboured. Scott Parker missed out with an ankle injury while Mousa Dembélé limped off on 34 minutes to further disrupt the home side. They created next to nothing. Villas-Boas reported that Aaron Lennon's departure was also due to muscle tightness.
Southampton were composed and threatening, and they had two wonderful chances in the first half. Nathaniel Clyne, galloping into space on to Rickie Lambert's lofted through-ball, thumped wide of the far post while Lambert's low free-kick was tipped on to the post by Hugo Lloris. From the rebound, Steven Davis planted his header from Guly do Prado's cross straight at the goalkeeper.
Tottenham flickered on 68 minutes when the substitute Emmanuel Adebayor touched down for Clint Dempsey but the American snatched at the half-chance and the home team's closing push was coloured by desperation. It looked bleak for them when Bale's loud shout for a penalty following Jack Cork's swipe was ignored. "We haven't had a penalty all season, I have never seen this in football," Villas-Boas said, and Southampton looked good to clamber to 40 points. Bale, though, had other ideas.