Gareth Bale collected possession in the last minute, he jinked inside, rolling the ball on to his left foot and unfurled a glorious shot into the far, top corner from 25 yards. Under normal circumstances, Bale's goal, his 26th of a stellar season, would have been the cause for frenzied celebration. Not here. It did not matter.
The victory propelled Tottenham Hotspur to 72 points, a Premier League record for the club. They have finished in the top five for the fourth consecutive season. And they have qualified for Europe. There has been lots to like about André Villas-Boas's debut season at White Hart Lane. Yet it rang hollow. The post-match lap of appreciation featured forced smiles and heavy hearts. None of it was not enough for the European qualification that they really wanted.
Arsenal did what they had to do at Newcastle United. Tottenham's old foes got the victory that they needed to reach the Champions League yet again and render everything academic here, not only Bale's winner but the denial of two clear Tottenham penalty appeals and the latest white-knuckle ride for the White Hart Lane crowd. Tottenham have not had a penalty all season, apart from the ones in the Europa League quarter-final shoot-out defeat at Basel, which could not really have been denied them. They have not had one in the league at this stadium since April 2011. It did not matter.
Tottenham are scarred by the memories of last-day agonies past and now they have another one from the present. It had been lost on nobody that Arsène Wenger's Arsenal finish above Tottenham, that is what they do. But the throbbing atmosphere had been underpinned by the yearning for something, anything, to conspire to make things different.
In the end, despite efforts to the contrary, Spurs were consumed by regrets. The home losses to Wigan Athletic and Fulham, the other dropped points here; the injuries, particularly to Sandro in January; the lack of goals from the strikers.
It had to be said that when Paolo Di Canio laid into his Sunderland players after the match, painting a vivid picture of professionals who did not deserve the description, of deep-rooted indiscipline and of a squad that required wholesale change, it might have been possible for Villas-Boas to feel a little better.
At least Tottenham's failure was heroic and it was not the same old story, either, of a club gripped by nerves and crumbling in the final stages of a season. This victory meant that they had taken 39 points over the second half of the season and it came after cruel cuts had been overcome, in the form of the turned down penalties by the referee, Andre Marriner.
The first controversy came in the 19th minute, when Bale tore into the penalty area on to Tom Huddlestone's through ball and felt Sebastian Larsson's arm in his back. He went down but Marriner ruled that Bale had dived. For the fifth time this season, and the fourth in the league, the triple player of the year saw yellow for simulation. Villas-Boas went crackers. He knew that an early goal might even have unnerved Arsenal.
The second flashpoint came shortly after the interval. Emmanuel Adebayor, who looked in the mood, spun and shot but Carlos Cuéllar, diving low to his right, made the save. Cuéllar, of course, is not the Sunderland goalkeeper. Villas-Boas was incandescent.
Tottenham had controlled the first half, even though Danny Graham created an excellent opportunity for Connor Wickham on 31 minutes: Hugo Lloris's block at close quarters was vital. Villas-Boas's team had tempo and aggression, and they flickered in the final third.
Their big chance of the half fell to Bale, following Aaron Lennon's cut-back but he did not make a clean connection with his left foot. The shot hit Jack Colback, possibly on the arm and went wide.
Sunderland were riddled by injuries, had midfielders in the full-back positions and a grand total of five minutes of first-team experience among their outfield substitutes. Di Canio would reveal that these problems were merely the tip of the iceberg. He grumbled about their lack of goal threat and yet they had another glorious chance to take the lead early in the second half. Wickham caught Huddlestone and fed Graham, who beat Michael Dawson and struck low and hard. Lloris made a reflex block.
Tottenham's complaints for the handball against Cuéllar had barely subsided when the news of the Arsenal goal at Newcastle filtered through. The atmosphere came to be sapped and there appeared to be the proof that it would not be Tottenham's day when Scott Parker saw a shot smuggled to safety from Colback, who was stationed in front of the line. From the rebound, Lennon's shot deflected off Colback, hit the post and squirmed to safety. From a Tottenham point of view, it was excruciating.
There was the obligatory false alarm of a Newcastle equaliser – the surge of delight quickly dissipated – and the general edginess was reflected in Parker, who was fuming when he was substituted. He avoided eye contact with Villas-Boas.
Sunderland were reduced to 10 men in the 74th minute when David Vaughan hacked at Lennon for the second time but Tottenham looked ready to fizzle out.
Bale refocused them and, all of a sudden, there was Adebayor asking fans in the stand for the score from Newcastle, together with all-round scrutiny of phones. The Champions League lifeline, though, did not come.
Man of the match Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)