Aaron Lennon's adroit winner and Gareth Bale's justified dismay at, once again, being branded a diver commanded more attention but Tottenham's two central midfielders were the key to the team's sixth win in eight Premier League games.

The strength and intelligence of Sandro, especially, and Mousa Dembélé ensured that Spurs were able to control the game for prolonged periods while leaving their wingers free to concentrate on attack.

Things worked so well that Sandro suggested André Villas-Boas's players could be champions come May. "Everybody talks about Manchester United and City and even Chelsea for the title but never Spurs," said the Brazilian. "Why not Spurs? We have a good coach, a good squad and everything is working well.

"This is a fast, dangerous team built to attack and we are not content to just be a top-four side. No one is talking about Spurs as champions but then, bang, we will win it and they will be talking about Tottenham then."

Sandro and Dembélé are so powerfully accomplished that, unlike many Premier League counterparts, they can thrive in a 4-4-2 formation against alternatively configured opponents fielding three central midfielders.

Sunderland's 4-4-1-1 system meant, in effect, they had two-and-a-half men staffing that department on Saturday, but Sandro ensured that Stéphane Sességnon flitted around to limited effect while Dembélé concentrated on involving Lennon and Bale at every opportunity.

Nearly a year since being dismissed by Chelsea, Villas-Boas's moulding of this Brazilian-Belgian axis has not only ensured Luka Modric's departure was not the disaster it might have been but quietly restored his boy wonder reputation.

Judging by the visiting manager's friendly words of touchline tactical advice for Jermain Defoe and the post final whistle hugs reserved for the substitute Scott Parker and his assistant Steffen Freund, the 35-year-old is also developing the sort of human, empathetic touch critics claimed he lacked at Stamford Bridge.

The narrative of Villa-Boas's perceived past coldness is widely accepted but maybe he has not changed quite so radically as imagined at Spurs. Perhaps the frostiness belonged largely to a cabal of senior Chelsea players? "I always believed in my managerial ability," he said. "But it's an unpredictable job."

Like his old mentor, Sir Bobby Robson, the Portuguese – displaying a sense of humour noticeably absent during his west London days – is able to entertain an opposing viewpoint, which explains the sympathy he extended to Martin Atkinson following Bale's harsh late booking for a perceived dive in the face of Craig Gardner's challenge.

"It was a big refereeing mistake but Gareth's pace makes things very difficult for referees to judge," said Villas-Boas, adopting the sort of conciliatory, measured, magnanimous tone Sir Alex Ferguson often avoids. "Speed is difficult to analyse and everyone makes mistakes."

A fifth booking of the season means Bale misses Tuesday's meeting with Reading and the winger dubbed the league's principal diver did not share his manager's capacity for forgiveness. "If there's contact, what do you want me to do, hit my head on the floor?" Bale said. "I have to put my hands down to protect myself."

Earlier he had flattered to deceive, exciting Spurs fans but frustrating them too as his final delivery repeatedly undid some thrilling approach work.

Lennon eventually blossomed but a surprisingly slow start against the Sunderland left-back Matt Kilgallon – deputising for the ineligible Tottenham loanee Danny Rose – allied to Emmanuel Adebayor shooting against the bar from two yards, offered Sunderland early hope.

Sebastian Larsson struggled in central midfield but few players take a meaner dead ball and his free-kick laden with curve, dip and vicious pace prefaced John O'Shea giving Martin O'Neill's side a 40th‑minute lead.

Its fragility was confirmed when Carlos Cuéllar headed a corner into his own net and Lennon manipulated the ball around O'Shea before beating the excellent Simon Mignolet with a fine right-footed finish.

Spurs deserved to win but Sunderland have improved significantly over the past month and, like Villas-Boas and Sandro, O'Neill can approach 2013 with optimism.

Man of the match Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur)