Few teams in this most curious of seasons are having a more intriguing time than Tottenham Hostpur. At the halfway point of a campaign that has been most memorable for managerial turmoil and humiliating defeats, Spurs find themselves only three points away from the Champions League places and one point better off than they were at the same stage last season. Whether progress is really being made remains to be seen but this, their most emphatic league win of the season, seemed like a confident stride in the right direction.
The new head coach, Tim Sherwood, has vowed to restore the wow factor and here his team, and their fans, relished the freedom and urgency he has instilled. There were speed and directness to Tottenham's play that were often absent under André Villas-Boas. There was openness, too, but depleted Stoke City did not have the quality to exploit that.
Spurs dominated from the start, though at first it looked as if they might again be foiled by the inept finishing that has afflicted them all season. Emmanuel Adebayor and Christian Eriksen were guilty of clumsy close-range misses in the 13th minute after Aaron Lennon had fired the ball across the face of goal. One minute later Soldado dragged a shot wide from the edge of the area after being brilliantly set up by Paulinho who, until he was forced off by injury in the second half, was outstanding in midfield, bewildering opponents and delighting the home supporters with canny flicks and festive tricks. "He was immense, fantastic. I didn't know he possessed that, to be honest. He's opened my eyes," Sherwood said.
Stoke, who had to adjust their line-up after having two players sent off in the Boxing Day defeat at Newcastle, were overrun in the middle, where Wilson Palacios struggled on his first league start of the season. Mark Hughes was aghast at the performance of the officials at St James' Park and was soon aggrieved as Kevin Friend saw no foul when Jonathan Walters went down under a challenge by the last defender, Zeki Fryers, after a rare Stoke counter-attack.
Then, in the 34th minute, the referee waved play on after Oussama Assaidi tumbled in the box under a careless tackle by Michael Dawson. Three minutes later Stoke's ire intensified when Ryan Shawcross was punished for blocking an Adebayor scissor kick with his upraised arms. Soldado converted the penalty. That was the Spaniard's fifth league goal of the campaign, his fourth from the spot. Soldado could have embellished his open-play haul just before that but glanced a header inches wide from a Paulinho cross. Still, at least the service to the Spaniard was good.
Lennon reinforced that point in the 57th minute when he charged down the right and delivered another inviting ball to the striker, who failed to connect properly from seven yards, allowing Thomas Sorensen to save. Moments later the goalkeeper had to dive to deny Eriksen. Spurs were well on top but they craved further confirmation on the scoresheet. That soon arrived.
Mousa Dembélé triggered an explosion of joy in the 65th minute when he rifled the ball into the net from 25 yards. Four minutes later Lennon claimed the goal that his display deserved, latching on to a loose ball in the Stoke box before lashing it into the net from 15 yards. Spurs were so obviously superior that Hughes did not dwell on the referee's decisions. "In terms of the quality on show and the way Spurs played we found it very difficult to get anywhere near them," he said. "They were sharper to each and every ball and half a yard quicker. They are a good team and they looked fully motivated and every one of the players wanted to get on the ball and affect the game."
Sherwood knows it may not always be like this. "I like to play with risk and, with all due respect to Stoke, there are going to be tougher tests ahead and we have to try to find the right formula for playing against the bigger teams," said the new manager. His next assignment is at Old Trafford on New Year's Day.
Man of the match Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)