Sunderland are not usually in the habit of doing Newcastle United favours but there are exceptions to every rule, and they delighted in enhancing their neighbours' hopes of qualifying for the Champions League at Tottenham Hotspur's expense. A brilliant late tackle on a goal-bound Gareth Bale by Craig Gardner proved emblematic of an afternoon when Martin O'Neill's players defended wonderfully and threatened sporadically on the counterattack.

Despite being confronted by an array of attacking and creative visiting talent, Sunderland's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet did not have a save of real note to make all game. Moreover, although Brad Friedel, Tottenham's keeper, was hardly over-extended either, Stéphane Sessègnon and the frequently double-marked James McClean periodically fazed Harry Redknapp's team.

"We could have won but it's a tough place to come," said the Spurs manager, who is aware that, quite apart from the danger posed by Chelsea, Newcastle are only three points behind his side and very much in Champions League contention, while Spurs have only won once in their past seven league games.

"It's going to be close, it's going to go right to the wire, we might not know the top four until the final day of the season," Redknapp said. "Newcastle have been amazing. They've put themselves right in the picture; they've got a real chance but we're still in the box seat."

Apart from Scott Parker escaping unpunished after apparently handling the ball in the penalty area following one of a series of corners forced by Sunderland, the first half was relatively incident lite. Tottenham began by monopolising possession but the home side refused to be cowed into submission in the face of the odd gorgeous little cameo from Luka Modric, who did at least force Mignolet into one early, easy, save.

With Bale finding Phil Bardsley an awkward opponent and Emmanuel Adebayor discovering Michael Turner's similarly stubborn side, space and time suddenly appeared for Sessègnon to show off the attacking skills that have left him coveted by a raft of Europe's leading clubs.

Sessègnon's sometimes breathtaking ball manipulation and out-manoeuvring of defenders soon had Redknapp and his assistant Kevin Bond engaging in anxious technical area consultation but their team seemed powerless to prevent the Benin international winning Sunderland several set pieces. More significantly, only William Gallas's legs came between one Sessègnon shot and the back of the net.

"We had the ball for 14 of the first 15 minutes but Sunderland sat back and there was nowhere for us to go," Redknapp said. "They played like an away team and counterattacked us. There was no room behind them, we couldn't find space. At half-time I said I was disappointed we weren't winning but Sunderland defended well and put a shift in and a point is a point."

Despite Bale making the odd dangerous second-half escape, Turner and his equally impressive central defensive partner Matthew Kilgallon coped commendably. Even so, considering that pair – who both made vital clearances to deny Rafael van der Vaart certain goals – might well not have been playing had Wes Brown and John O'Shea been fit, Adebayor would at least have expected to test Mignolet's reflexes.

Instead, probably the Belgian's biggest frights came when he was confronted by an unmarked Bale and when Spurs argued that Turner's clearance from Van der Vaart featured a handball. Unfortunately for Redknapp, Bale elected to head Benoît Assou-Ekotto's cross on to the roof of the net, while the referee Chris Foy did not buy the visitors' claims. There was also the early moment when Assou-Ekotto fizzed a half-volley fractionally wide. But for all Tottenham's domination of the ball, Sunderland constantly sought to attack on the break and did take the odd risk in doing so. At the end of one such advance, McClean would surely have scored after connecting with Sebastian Larsson's low cross had not Kyle Walker made an interception.

"I'd disagree with what Harry says about the way we set ourselves up," O'Neill said. "We've got a lot of good players. James McClean was up against one of their best full-backs but Harry still doubled-up on him."

Eventually Sandro, who had been helping Walker out in minding the young Irish left-winger, made way for Aaron Lennon. With Louis Saha also replacing Adebayor and Jermain Defoe taking Van der Vaart's place, Redknapp pressed all available attacking buttons but, partly courtesy of Gardner's vital block on Bale, Sunderland still held firm. Granted they might have sneaked a winner from a set piece, but this was largely about Gardner and Lee Cattermole assiduously closing down the Spurs midfield and defenders putting bodies on the line.

"We didn't hit the same heights as last week at Manchester City," O'Neill said. "It was a difficult game, a tough afternoon for us." It is a compliment to his much improved players that Redknapp, Modric, Bale and co were left feeling precisely the same.