André Villas-Boas had preached extreme caution and simply sought to take something tangible to San Siro next Thursday in the quest for a place in the Europa League quarter-finals. The Tottenham Hotspur manager got much more as his team enjoyed an occasion that was memorable principally for its comfort.

There was little to get excited about regarding the mighty Internazionale and, as Tottenham cut through them seemingly at will, it became a question of whether the second leg would remain alive. At full-time the pulse was faint at best.

There is glory to be had when the three-times European champions can be vanquished so completely, yet the evening carried little of the barnstorming quality of the 3-1 Champions League group stage triumph over Inter here in 2010. The only echo came when the White Hart Lane crowd called for a taxi to remove the entire Inter team, rather than merely Maicon, the club's former right-back, who had been humbled by Gareth Bale two seasons ago.

Villas-Boas had trailed Inter as "the best of the best" but they were lacklustre from back to front. A symbol of the spectacle came when Scott Parker tricked Walter Gargano with a quick-footed move in injury time and the home support practically laughed.

The final whistle was not the prompt for an outpouring of emotion, which spoke volumes. Tottenham's players merely shook hands and moved on.

They punished Inter's dismal defending and the only negatives were that they did not score the additional goals that their superiority merited and Bale's 14th-minute yellow card for diving, which was his third caution of the competition. As such it rules him out of the return in Milan, although whether he would be needed felt open to interpretation.

Bale has been booked for simulation in three Premier League fixtures this season – against Liverpool, Fulham and Sunderland – and the coming-together that he engineered by hooking his leg around Gargano inside the penalty area was a black mark for him. Those that say there was contact miss the key point that it had nothing to do with Gargano, who simply looked down in horror at his opponent.

There will thus be no San Siro return for Bale, the scene of his Champions League hat-trick against Inter, although Villas-Boas turned the negative into a positive, as he feels that progress is all but assured. "Gareth will be a great miss but we have him clean of cards for the future rounds," Villas-Boas said.

Inter had the substitute Fredy Guarín booked for a dive over William Gallas and Bale's card did not take the sheen off Tottenham's achievement.

Villas-Boas had considered the fixture against his former employers as "just reward" for his team's efforts in the competition but Tottenham are far from finished.

The Portuguese had named his strongest team, as he has consistently done but Inter, too, looked strong, at least on paper, despite their injury absentees and Andrea Stramaccioni using the top scorer, Rodrigo Palacio, and Guarín as substitutes. Villas-Boas believes it is a "science fiction" that the Europa League drains stamina for the Premier League.

Stramaccioni had bemoaned the injuries beforehand which, he said, had forced him to include six youth-team players in his travelling party and he had made it clear that Inter's priority over the remaining months of the season was to qualify for the Champions League via a top-three finish in Serie A. They are one point off the pace in fourth.

Tottenham looked hungrier, as though they wanted the victory more. Inter did not even wear their black-and-blue shirts and, if it was jarring to see them in red, it did allow the home crowd the chance to ask if they were "Arsenal in disguise", which made for a chortle.

Inter were unrecognisable on so many levels and Bale gave Tottenham control at the outset when he slipped Esteban Cambiasso to meet Gylfi Sigurdsson's cross with a powerful downwards header. It was his 10th goal in eight games for the club.Jermain Defoe forced Samir Handanovic into his first save of the game and the second goal came when the striker collected Aaron Lennon's low cross, performed his spin-and-shoot routine and watched Handanovic parry. Sigurdsson reacted sharply to steer home the rebound.

Jan Vertonghen's looping header caused a nervous moment for Handanovic and Tottenham's dominance was startling. Inter had a flicker when Ricardo Alvarez went through one on one with Brad Friedel at the end of the first half but his finish, dragged low beyond the far post, epitomised Inter's toils.

Friedel made a late save from Palacio but that was the sum total of the visitors' threat.

Serie A teams are not supposed to concede goals as Inter did and the stalwarts of previous generations would have spluttered when Vertonghen added the third. His header from Bale's corner brooked no argument, although none had been forthcoming. Again Cambiasso was slack, passing Vertonghen on to Cristian Chivu, and he also failed to challenge. Vertonghen gave the exposed Handanovic no chance.

Bale, Defoe and Lennon went close to making the scoreline look humiliating but Tottenham could be content with what they had. Their intent has been emphasised.

"Our big, big task is progressing through the competition because of the prestige and the effect it can have on our season," Villas-Boas said. "It was a great European night for us."