Steven Caulker knew nothing about his first goal in top-flight football and his smile betrayed a degree of embarrassment. They all count. The Tottenham Hotspur defender found that all his stars were in alignment when Jermain Defoe took a touch to control a Gareth Bale corner and struck for goal. The shot was travelling wide only for it to deflect off the unwitting Caulker, fizz inside the near corner and send Tottenham to their fourth Premier League win in succession.
Caulker, who is often referred to as the future of Tottenham, had previously scored only two goals, both of which came during a loan spell at Bristol City. His joy, however, led to frustration for Aston Villa, their manager, Paul Lambert, and in particular the striker Christian Benteke. Everyone in claret and blue was left to consider the tightness of the margins and how different stories can so easily be written.
Lambert had omitted Darren Bent, again, from his starting line-up, which was coloured by controversy after the striker had come off the substitutes' bench to score the equaliser in last weekend's derby against West Bromwich Albion.
The spotlight picked out Benteke, who started as the lone forward in a new-look formation but, after he missed a presentable shooting opportunity immediately after the interval from Gabriel Agbonlahor's cut-back, he spurned a gilt-edged header in the 51st minute that Bent, the former Tottenham player, would surely have fancied himself to score. To dredge a ghost from Bent's past, Harry Redknapp's missus would have buried it.
The intrigue ran deeper. André Villas-Boas, the Tottenham manager, had started with Hugo Lloris, his £13m summer signing from Lyon, at the expense of Brad Friedel, who saw his sequence of 310 consecutive Premier League matches broken. It was the France goalkeeper's loose throw straight to Brett Holman that led to Marc Albrighton measuring the cross for the unmarked Benteke. When he directed the header beyond the far post Lambert contorted in agony.
Had Benteke scored, he might have been the hero, Bent a footnote and Lloris the villain. Instead Caulker caught the break, Tottenham were fortified and they emerged as comfortable winners with Aaron Lennon punishing loose defending from Joe Bennett to lash home the clinching second goal. Bennett's day would get worse when he suffered a nasty-looking cut to his leg and was wheeled off on a stretcher.
Lambert had used his substitutes and, with his team on the back foot for the final 12 minutes with 10 men, they narrowly avoided a more comprehensive defeat. Clint Dempsey missed a free header and Bale watched Brad Guzan touch his shot on to the far post and away. Lambert's work in progress remains unpredictable.
"We're disappointed because we had a big, big moment," Lambert said, referring to the Benteke header. "You don't know if you're going to win it but it gives you a foothold in the game. It's a fine line whether you win or lose, a really fine line. When you have two big chances at a place like this, you've got to score at least one of them. You know it's not your day when a deflection goes in."
Lambert found himself obliged to spend a portion of his post-match conference explaining the reasons for omitting Bent, whom he had stripped, earlier in the season, of the club captaincy. It was down purely to the formation he wanted to deploy at White Hart Lane, which was designed to counter opponents that attack in numbers on the flanks. Benteke, he said, was the better bet as the lone striker, with Bent preferring to play with "somebody up there beside him". Lambert said that Bent had been "fine" about the decision.
Tottenham started brightly, with Bale prominent, even if he took a theatrical tumble under a challenge from Guzan that blotted his copybook. Bale flashed a shot past the far post while one of his whipped deliveries was almost turned home by the impressive Jan Vertonghen.
Defoe flickered with his spin-and-shoot trick in what became a flat first half while, for Villa, Benteke stung Lloris' palms in the 22nd minute. Lloris was solid, showing authority in the air and reading the game astutely; he left his line to save in front of Agbonlahor after Holman had slid him through. Lloris' handling was true to deny Benteke in the 46th minute although the striker ought to have got his shot further away from him.
Defoe thudded a second-half chance wide and he was angry when he was substituted, having failed to mark his 30th birthday with a goal. The chief angst, though, belonged to Benteke.
Man of the match Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)